Can we afford to tackle the air quality issue?

This is the final part of a series of articles looking to develop the debate on the best and most cost-effective options available to fleets and air quality managers to enable compliance with air quality standards in relation to NOx (or NO2) levels. Read Part One, here, and Part Two, here.

So here we are post-election and facing a more difficult journey for legislation to pass through parliament. ‘How might that affect the air quality dilemma’ I hear you ask. Well, for starters, the EU passed a resolution that will allow operators of HGVs to have a one tonne derogation (or extra weight allowance) on their vehicles, if they are running alternative fuels or technologies i.e. hydrogen, batteries, gaseous fuels. It is for the UK to transpose this into law to allow our operators to take advantage of this and help drive the change-over to more acceptable forms of goods mobility. It apparently was scheduled to go to the House in March 2017 for enactment but an election got in the way. Anyhow it should be in place by May 2018.

Colin Matthews, JouleVert

Fleets are keen to look at the alternatives provided that the technology is reliable, backed by OEMs, and fits the functionality of the fleet in question. “If the wheels ain’t turnin’, then we ain’t earnin’,“ as a gritty Yorkshire Fleet Manager recently said to me.

There is no argument to that. What do they cost per mile and how reliable are they are: the first two questions out of a fleet manager’s mouth. Who can blame them?

So often I am met with deep (realistic) concerns over electric trucks (and to some extent vans) when it comes to payload loss. Add to this the range anxiety particularly in winter with wipers, lights, heaters etc. and you can understand their viewpoint. They are faced with a vehicle cost at over twice the base diesel vehicle cost, along with a limited (<120-mile) daily range. Then you have the in-depot cost of securing the electricity supply; it isn’t just a case of plugging it in. There are two cases in London where there was the necessity to put in a new sub-station to provide the required power supply to recharge the fleet. The cost: between £400k-£1m for fewer than 50 vehicles. So, without grants what does your payback look like? Time to get the defibrillator out for the CFO….

Caution

Caution therefore amongst commercial fleets relating to the ‘electric’ route is therefore understandably evident. There are trials ongoing through the second Low Carbon Freight grant scheme and no doubt valuable lessons will be shared. It does though feel as if electric only trucks are tethered and restricted in their cost effectiveness. What can we do therefore?

Well, all is not lost. There are new developments soon to break cover in range extended trucks. These combine a small internal combustion engine that acts as an on-board electricity generator (no mechanical drive) that drives electric motors and recharges the on-vehicle battery bank. The benefit is that you need fewer batteries (lower cost and weight) plus there is no range anxiety. With GPS fencing you can have an electric mode for city centres, so you control when and where the engine runs. As the engine runs at a set rev point to optimise electricity generation, the emission reduction can be optimised. As the engine does not have any mechanical drive requirement, it can be alternatively fuelled using, for example, LPG or Natural Gas thus bringing additional fuel savings and air quality emission reductions. Furthermore, this solution does away with the current exhaust gas conditioning systems, resulting in further weight reduction. It is effectively a ‘road train’ with a realistic payback period.

Dedicated natural gas trucks are now appearing from the OEMs as the benefits of that fuel are more clearly recognised and the potential for biomethane in liquid and gaseous form is more compelling than ever, given both the requirements an operator needs from a truck and the constraints of other alternative solutions.

Policy

What the industry needs is a clear, consistent set of policies and guidance from Government that will enable both operators and commercial vehicle suppliers to develop a step-by-step approach, without adding unnecessary cost to the goods and services the public and business. Thankfully it appears that there is a growing understanding within both DfT and Defra that we will need differing solutions for different vehicle categories and together we should encourage this thinking and the resulting pathways.

Lowering vehicle emissions: does the cost stack up?

Understanding costs and their impact will always be the bottom line for a fleet operator and so clarity in both where we are now and where we want to be needs to be out on the table. The Treasury gets some £27.6bn income from fuel duty and £5.5bn from VED plus the 20% VAT on top of that. Currently petrol, diesel, natural gas and LPG (and their bio equivalents) all pay fuel duty, albeit at differing rates. However currently both hydrogen and electricity do not have any fuel duty levied on them.

If we take ourselves to 2040 with an anticipation that as much as 30% of the car park will be electric and moving towards hydrogen, how will the Treasury recover the revenue loss? Some say we will transform to road user charging rather than fuel duty however that would result in the reduction in petrol and diesel prices by over a half – what effect on the sales of electric and hydrogen vehicles would that have? Hence the need for careful and well-planned thinking so that unintended consequences do not inadvertently occur. Perhaps a clearer hierarchical set of fuel duties based on true well-to-wheels carbon savings is needed, so we end up with a set of fuel duties that both the public and industry understand and see as fair. As a result, this will both drive change and take everyone with us along the journey. This would provide a transparent cost per mile to run the different vehicles/technology, which is ultimately what decisions are based one. We therefore wait with baited breadth to see how government will address this to underpin both carbon targets and policy decisions.

This article has been contributed to AirQualityNews.com by low carbon transport consultant JouleVert.