27 jul 2017BLOG

Electric trucks: economically and environmentally desirable but misunderstood

By Auke Hoekstra

In this blog series we will calculate the cost per kilometer of a heavy-duty long-haul battery electric truck. The real thing! We add this option to the comprehensive report “The Future of Trucks” that the International Energy Agency published this month. This report strangely omits this option from its comparison, even though we will see it is both the best way to combat global warming and to decrease costs.  The end results are shown below and explained in detail in this blog series.

 

 

A counter narrative to the myth that heavy trucks cannot be electrified

When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right.
When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

Arthur C. Clarke’s first law [1]

Allow me to start our short journey with a warning: you must be able to look past the experts of the old if you want to learn about disruptive innovations. The experts of the old are distinguished gentlemen and gentlewomen who speak with authority because they are part of a venerable tradition that has been studying a domain for many, many years. In the stable domains of energy and mobility their influence has become especially strong. They are connected to the largest companies and most prestigious institutions. We should take them, and their facts, very seriously. However, they are only human. Just like everyone else they are prone to confirmation bias and groupthink [2], [3]. Individually they have trouble envisioning the disruption of the system they are the high priests of, and as a group they are immune to talk of disruptive solutions.

If I would have believed what experts of the old said about sustainable energy and electric road transport I would have hung my head in despair ten years ago. Fortunately I had already experienced similar opposition in my previous career as a consultant. I touted the potential of PCs, Internet, WWW, mobile phones and smartphones very early on and this invariably brought me into conflict with experts of the old. Often the old technology had to be wiped out before they started to come around. You could say this past experience inoculated me against the conservative bias they exude.

In 2007 I wrote that the fossil experts of oil companies and the international energy agency (IEA) kept failing to grasp or accept the rise of solar panels. Recently I’ve shown that this has been going on for more than fifteen years now. I’ll admit that the attention this got was gratifying but for me this was a side issue. This article series focusses on my main research: the electrification of road transportation and its synergy with sustainable energy and the electricity grid.

Since I started researching it for myself in 2005 there has been a remarkable shift in the attitudes towards electric personal transportation. My first book (2009) was mainly about convincing people that electric cars were possible at all. Now I’m asked to give lectures like debunking the myths hampering the electric car (in Dutch with English subtitles) and to talk about our future full of electric cars to Dutch members of parliament. By now most politicians and policy makers I talk to believe that we will make the switch to electric cars relatively quick.

But the discussion in road freight transport is like a journey back in time. Experts of the old are still perpetuating the myth that heavy trucks cannot be electrified. This keeps us from building the electric trucks and the charging infrastructure we need. I think that’s bad because electric trucks are the only realistic way to radically reduce road transport CO2 emissions. This blog series is meant to put a can-do counter-narrative out there.

Adding a battery electric truck scenario to the new IEA report “The Future of Trucks”

I think the timing is right because this month the International Energy Agency (IEA) came out with a 167 page report called “The Future of Trucks”. The IEA is the most influential organization in the field and the report deserves praise because it is chockfull of facts and perspectives. This makes it an invaluable starting point for any analysis of the future road freight system including mine. However, the report completely ignores battery electric trucks in its scenario analysis.

I’ve recreated all the scenarios the IEA has considered for Europe and the figure below shows the result. For me it summarizes the report and shows the conservative mindset that created it. 

ICE diesel and ICE hybrid are basically same old same old. They are almost indistinguishable from each other. The IEA seems to think hybrids for long hauls are of questionable value (and says as much on e.g. page 75). Going forward modest increases in fuel efficiency are negated by modest increases in fuel cost.

CNG and LNG had a business case in 2015 because of cheap fuel. In the long run this advantage will disappear because diesel becomes cleaner and there are no CO2 advantages to CNG and LNG. That’s what the IEA numbers say. Nothing to see here either.

CAT-ERS stands for Catenary Electrified Road System. Basically a diesel truck that can drive as a trolley on roads that have a power line overhead. But why would a truck that drives 80% of its kilometers using an overhead wire still use an internal combustion engine with its cost and maintenance? Why is the overhead line depreciated in just five years? I think conservative thinking managed to mess up this scenario and will revisit it in my last post.

FCEV stands for fuel cell electric vehicle: a hydrogen truck. You can see that some experts at the table were very optimistic about the price-performance improvements in 2050 while others didn’t buy it. I can tell you already that electric trucks would be cheaper than hydrogen in almost all cases if the same amount of optimism was applied. Nevertheless there certainly is a place for hydrogen in a renewable energy system as we will see in my last post.

One sentence on page 105 is all the explanation we get for omitting electric trucks: “Battery-electric and plug?in hybrid vehicles are excluded from Figure 26 for simplicity, given the focus on long-haul mission profiles.” But looking at the unspectacular alternatives I think we should give it a try. I think that I can use the IEA’s own numbers and methodology to add a new scenario and to show that electric trucks are our best option. Not only environmentally but also economically.

I’ll make that case in four more posts (chapters) that correspond to the four most important components you can use to evaluate each option. See table below, with links to the single chapters.

 

Chapter 1
Energy supply

Chapter 2
Motor

Chapter 3
Energy storage

Chapter 4
Energy delivery

Diesel

Fuel

<30% efficient

Gasoline tank

Gas stations

Electric

Electricity

>85% efficient

Battery

Chargers

In chapter one I'll talk about the most important factor: energy supply. I’ll show that we cannot rely on biofuels to replace oil and how this basically rules out the internal combustion engine from the get go.

In chapter two I’ll show how the electric truck pulls ahead because of the electric motors lower energy and maintenance cost.

In chapter three we will see that dramatic developments in batteries make electric trucks not only possible but even probable.

In chapter four we will look at all the ways you can charge these batteries, including fast charging, electrified road systems and hydrogen. I’ll show there is a charging solution for every business case.

My past experience with the experts of the old tells me that the IEA will probably not change its tune. But I dare you, dear reader, to tell me in the comments where my facts are wrong or my argumentation goes awry. I will also use your feedback to improve the scientific article I’m currently writing and I will credit you in the acknowledgements of the paper if I think you’ve come up with substantial facts and/or argumentation. I look forward to the discussion!

 

References

[1]          A. C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future. New York: Warner Books Inc, 1985.

[2]          R. Nickerson, “Confirmation bias: a ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises,” Rev. Gen. Psychol., vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 175–220, 1998.

[3]          T. Postmes, R. Spears, and S. Cihangir, “Quality of decision making and group norms.,” J. Pers. Soc. Psychol., vol. 80, no. 6, pp. 918–930, 2001.

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