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Achieving climate objectives in transport: Ways to electrify heavy-duty commercial vehicles and to use alternative fuels

Road freight transport is responsible for almost one third of domestic greenhouse gas emissions. In order to make its contribution to achieving climate change targets, further measures are needed for this sector. In particular, there is clear pressure for action in the electrification of heavy goods transport and the development of the potential of advanced biogenic and electricity-based fuels. Two new reports by the NPM's Working Group 1 Climate Protection in Transport identify ways of promoting the market ramp-up of electrified heavy-duty commercial vehicles and advancing the controversial discussion on the use of alternative fuels.

"Targets alone do not save CO2, they must be translated into concrete actions and instruments in order to have an effect and enable scaling," said Franz Loogen, head of AG 1 and managing director of the state agency e-mobil BW, at the presentation of the two AG 1 reports to the NPM steering committee. "Instruments must always be considered with a view to interactions with the entire transport and economic system. The two reports clearly show which regulatory and technical instruments are available to bring more clean commercial vehicles onto the road and more clean fuels to the loading or filling station. At the same time, they highlight different assessments of where the vehicles and fuels are used and their contribution to climate protection. Only if the different assessments of the members of WG 1 are presented in a transparent way will the political decision-makers have the whole picture and be able to make the right decisions," Loogen continued. "Quick decisions are necessary to achieve the legally binding climate targets for 2030.

One third of the mileage of heavy-duty trucks should be electric

A good half of all emissions in the commercial vehicle sector come from heavy-duty trucks, which are often used in long-distance transport. The Climate Protection Programme 2030 sets the goal of electrifying one third of all mileage. However, there are hardly any market-ready technologies for heavy goods transport, and the logistics sector is characterised by a great heterogeneity of vehicle types and application profiles, and also operates in a fiercely competitive international environment. The report therefore analysed the three possible technology paths - battery electric propulsion (BEV), hydrogen and fuel cell technology (H2FC) and overhead line hybrid (OH) - their marketability and the necessary policy instruments.

Calculations were made on the total cost of ownership (TCO), economic CO2 avoidance costs and other parameters such as cross-border compatibility, existence of shop infrastructure at home and abroad. With the result that, at the present time, no focus on a single technology path can be recommended. However, this may make sense in the medium term in order to accelerate the technical feasibility and optimise necessary investments. Accordingly, an overall review of the state of development of the three technologies should be carried out again in 2023.

Government instruments can significantly influence the market uptake of electric commercial vehicles. This results in different recommendations for action for all three technology paths. They include the promotion of acquisition costs, the rapid expansion of the tank and charging infrastructure for battery electric and H2FC trucks, the overhead line infrastructure for OH trucks and subsidised practical tests for OH trucks on commuter routes. More intensive research & development with regard to technological maturity and cost reduction for H2FC trucks, clarification of standardisation issues, the use of a CO2-spread toll and the influencing of energy costs are recommended.

Consistent and rapid action is essential to make one or more technology options technically, organisationally, socially acceptable and economically marketable by the mid-2020s. This would be necessary in order to rapidly scale up alternative powertrains in the commercial vehicle sector by the end of the decade and integrate them into the market. Other approaches to decarbonising heavy goods transport should also be considered, such as optimising truck equipment components and trailers or promoting modal shift and combined transport (CT).

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Climate impact and ways to use alternative fuels

Alternative fuels include electricity-based (Power-to-X, PtX) and advanced biomass-based fuels. The report examines their different production processes in terms of market maturity and use volumes as well as necessary sustainability criteria.

In principle, there are different opinions as to the extent to which and in which areas of use alternative fuels can and should contribute to CO2 reduction in the transport sector. Differences of opinion exist, inter alia, on the question of the availability of renewable energies on a global scale and, in particular, on whether or not electricity-based fuels should be used in road transport.

The development of two roadmaps on biomass and electricity-based fuels will visualise on the time axis technologically possible steps for the development of industrial production pathways for sustainable biogenic fuels, renewable electricity based fuels and green hydrogen. Need for action and dependencies are shown in technological terms: Research and development work is still required for individual technologies (e.g. electrolysers, direct air capture) and the large-scale system integration of production plants. According to current estimates, therefore, and also with a view to the duration of planning procedures, a ramp-up of industrial-scale production is not expected until the second half of the decade. The production and use of advanced biofuels cannot be increased at will due to the limited availability of biogenic feedstocks and competition for use. Forecasts of production costs for electricity-based fuels in 2030 vary considerably and show a significantly higher cost level than fossil fuels.

Government instruments such as subsidies, quotas, tenders and a CO2 price, as well as the design of the tax and levy system, could be used to stimulate pilot plants and investment decisions for a ramp-up of alternative fuels. In order to trigger the necessary private sector investment, the instruments must be reliable and predictable over a period appropriate to the investment. The discussion on a suitable set of instruments was controversial in WG 1, so that different combinations of instruments are favoured depending on the basic position.

As a basis, the NPM recommends formulating and implementing ambitious, long-term and binding sustainability criteria for the production of electricity-based and advanced biofuels. Research should be specifically geared to supporting the scaling up of technologies, including their cost reductions in the shortest possible time. A market launch programme for larger plants in the 10,000 tonne class per year is also essential for the ramp-up of power-to-liquid (PtL) liquid fuels. In addition, international cooperation and partnerships are to be politically supported and encouraged. The global expansion of additional renewable electricity generation capacities is a prerequisite for the climate protection effect of PtX fuels.


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