Eric Beckwitt is the founder and chief executive officer of Freightera. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of FreightWaves.
Last Friday, I joined the Global Climate Strike in Vancouver, Canada, with a group of colleagues representing a coalition of prominent British Columbia businesses promoting a clean economy. It was inspiring and energizing for all of us to walk the streets with what the press estimated was 80,000 people, many families with small children and thousands of students attending with their entire schools. Vancouver schools and many colleges were closed, and you can’t argue that the political lesson we all learned on that day was invaluable. It was a hopeful, bright event on a gorgeous sunny day in Vancouver. Vancouver, along with many other cities in North America, demonstrated what huge people power lies behind the climate action and sustainability movement of today.
Many progressive politicians are taking note. The Green New Deal legislation in the U.S. Congress is inspired by the “New Deal” public works projects of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt in response to the Great Depression. The “Green New Deal” addresses both climate change and economic growth, directing investment in renewable energy infrastructure to avoid severe climate change while increasing employment. In this brief report, let me illustrate how the polluting and inefficient freight transport industry in North America could be transformed by a “Green New Deal for Freight Transport.” How can we do this with existing, rapidly developing technology?
In a groundbreaking new study, LUT University and Energy Watch Group reveled that by 2050 the world economy can run on 100% renewable energy with zero CO2 emissions. Energy cost with 100% percent renewables is projected to be slightly less than in 2015, and employment in the energy sector is projected to increase from approximately 20 million (2015) to 35 million (2050). In North America, the transition to 100% renewal energy is projected to be associated with an increase in employment in the energy sector, from 1.8 million jobs (2015) to a peak of 3.8 million by 2025 and 2.7 million by 2050. Cost of freight transport in this scenario during the transition to 100% renewables will decline by 70%, with cost of trucking falling the most.
This Green New Deal for Freight Transport is a series of cost-effective practical steps, using existing technologies, shifting freight from higher to lower emission transport modes, increasing employment in the energy sector, investing in it and building out regionally distributed solar and wind-powered renewable energy generating facilities, and finally converting trains, trucks and barges to run on renewable electric and renewal source fuels (hydrogen and others) to achieve zero emission freight transport by 2050.
- Shift all possible freight to rail and inland waterways
Numerous studies have documented the immediate cost savings and emissions reduction achieved by taking freight that normally would move by truck and shipping it instead by rail or inland waterway. Even if the train or vessel engines are still diesel-powered, the reduced energy use from these more efficient transport modes reduces CO2 emissions 60% or more for every load. Shipping long-haul freight by rail is also the least expensive shipping option in most cases now. This load shifting can be done immediately.
2. Automate “last mile” delivery with short-haul electric vehicles
Fully electrified short-haul freight trucks are already in commercial production, with prices at or near parity, depending on manufacturer, with their diesel-powered competitors. When connected with lower emission rail and inland waterways for long-haul freight transport, these short-haul EVs will offer a comprehensive, door-to-door low to zero emission service.
3. Shift monetary resources from fuel purchase (oil and gas) to sustainable energy production infrastructure
In 2016, approximately USD $1.3 trillion per year was spent on energy in North America. In the transition to sustainable energy production, the total spend on energy is projected to decline to approximately $1 trillion per year by 2050, but how we will spend this trillion changes dramatically. In 2015, approximately 70% of these funds were spent on fuel (primarily oil and gas), and 30% on capital investment in energy production infrastructure. Starting immediately, a much larger share of these funds must be spent on renewable energy infrastructure, primarily wind and solar, increasing electricity production up to five times over 2015 levels. By 2050, 95% of these funds should be invested in renewable energy infrastructure each year, and less than 5% spent on renewable fuels. The cumulative investment in new energy infrastructure over the 30-year period to 2050 is an estimated $11 trillion. Because renewables are already the least expensive option for generating electricity, the levelized cost (cost over the life of the energy production system) of energy is projected to fall by approximately 20% during the transition to 100% zero emission renewable power.
Increasing investment in renewable electric power and storage capacity will create the surplus energy needed to electrify all sectors of the economy, so that by 2050 renewable electricity can provide over 90% of the energy required for North America.
4. Electrify transportation
Most of us don’t realize that conventional cars and trucks, running on gas or diesel engines, are hugely inefficient at converting the energy in fuel into power at the wheels, despite over 100 years of research to improve efficiency.
In a March 2018 article in CleanTechnica, author Steve Hanley cites the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy: “EV’s convert about 59-60% of the electrical energy from the grid to power at the wheels. Conventional gasoline vehicles only convert about 17-21% of energy stored in gasoline to power at the wheels.” The rest is lost to waste heat and friction.
The current electric motors are already 85-90% efficient at converting energy to power at the wheels. Electric vehicles are 59-60% efficient only because of losses during battery charging and regenerative breaking, both technologies that are relatively young and improving rapidly.
If you consider the energy in a tank of gas in terms of electricity equivalent (kilowatt hours per gallon) even a car achieving 35 mpg is only one-third as efficient as an EV, and this does not include any of the energy costs of producing the oil, refining it, or transporting it. By simply switching to electric vehicles, we can immediately reduce energy use in transportation by 70%. Even without generating the electricity renewably, this already can reduce emissions 70%, and the emissions reductions can be even higher with locally sourced or renewably generated electricity.
5. Decentralize energy production
Most of us don’t realize that of the total energy produced in North America (extrapolated from U.S. data), less than 40% is actually used in all energy services. The rest is lost as waste due to centrally located and inefficient national energy production and distribution systems. When we successfully electrify each of the major energy consumption sectors, including transportation (27% of energy use), industrial (24.7%), commercial (8.6%) and residential (11.4%) and shift to smaller scale distributed local and regional energy sources, we can reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions by up to 60%.
In the LUT University report, locally and regionally produced solar photovoltaic energy supply increases throughout the transition to 62% of the total energy supply by 2050, becoming the lowest cost renewable fuel source for the transportation sector across North America.
6. Electrify rail and inland waterways first to achieve zero emission long-haul shipping
Although long-haul freight shipping by rail and inland waterway is already the most cost efficient and low emission freight shipping option, electrification offers the best option for zero emission long-haul freight shipping in North America. According to the LUT University study and other sources, long-haul freight transportation will be the last sector to be converted to sustainable electric, with most trucks still burning fossil fuels through 2030. Shifting long-haul freight to zero emission electric rail and inland waterways offers the fastest path to zero emission freight transport before 2030.
7. Use hydrogen as a “battery” for storing excess renewable electric production—and powering long-haul freight
Hydrogen and other sustainably produced biofuels have a key role to play in zero emission long-haul freight, where battery capacity may limit vehicle range for decades. Hydrogen is produced by electrolysis wherever excess electricity is generated and can be compressed and stored. Other renewable liquid fuels can also be created from excess renewable electricity and used as liquid fuels in transportation with no net emissions.
8. Changing public policy to support the transition to zero emission renewables
As summarized in the LUT report, “A global transition to 100% renewable energy across all sectors – power, heat, transport and desalination before 2050 is feasible. Existing renewable energy potential and technologies, including storage, is capable of generating a secure energy supply at every hour throughout the year. The sustainable energy system is more efficient and cost effective than the existing system, which is based primarily on fossil fuels and nuclear. A global renewable transition is the only sustainable option for the energy sector and is compatible with the internationally adopted Paris Agreement. The energy transition is not a question of technical feasibility or economic viability, but one of political will.”