Battery electric or hydrogen? We’ll need both, and more, to decarbonize heavy transport


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Nov 02, 2023

Battery electric or hydrogen? We’ll need both, and more, to decarbonize heavy transport

Battery electric, fuel cells running on green electricity or green hydrogen, and

Battery electric, fuel cells running on green electricity or green hydrogen, and the trusty internal combustion engine have the potential to decarbonize the transport industry.

By Lars Stenqvist

March 14, 2023

Image courtesy of Volvo Truck Corporation. All rights reserved.

[GreenBiz publishes a range of perspectives on the transition to a clean economy. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the position of GreenBiz.]

When it comes to delivering a more sustainable transport future, there is no silver bullet. The shift toward fossil free transport is underway in many parts of the world. Battery electric trucks are rolling onto public roads, and sales are starting to pick up. But there is a long way to go, and we need to speed up the pace of transformation. So how do we do this when the population is growing and demand for heavy duty transport is only likely to increase?

Battery electric trucks running on green electricity are not the only route to decarbonization we should be pursuing. A single solution response will not be sufficient to meet the huge demand for decarbonized transport systems. Instead, we need to invest in multiple solutions in parallel to cater to different customer and market demands, and to tackle the immense infrastructure challenge we face.

At Volvo Group, we believe, like many other industry observers, that most heavy-duty vehicles will be electric by 2040, but these will need to be a mix of battery electric and fuel cell electric. Battery electric vehicles are generally best suited to applications where the vehicle will return to base at the end of the day for recharging, such as city distribution, refuse collection and regional haulage, and electric vehicles for these purposes are available today.

Battery technology has improved by leaps and bounds — and the scale of innovation continues apace — so that today we see batteries with almost double the kilowatt-hours of first-generation electric vehicles. This means Volvo Group has been able to introduce series production of heavy-duty battery electric trucks so that we have a broad lineup to suit a variety of applications. This supports Volvo Group's ambition to have at least 35 percent fully electric vehicles sales by 2030. Our premium global truck brand, Volvo Trucks, is targeting that at least half of the global new trucks sales will be electric by 2030.

But battery electric isn't the right solution for all applications. We believe fuel cell electric vehicles powered by green hydrogen are the perfect complement and offer a promising solution for heavy duty applications and true long-haul transport.

Access to charging infrastructure and the price of green electricity and green hydrogen will determine which technologies are adopted and where, and we are likely to see differences across the world. In some areas, grid capacity and stability will be issues, particularly when it comes to charging multiple trucks in a truck stop at the same time. The power requirements will be considerable, making it impractical in certain locations.

Investment in charging infrastructure is integral to the transformation. Volvo Group is playing its part, partnering with Pilot Company in North America and forming a joint venture, Milence, with Daimler Truck and the Traton Group in Europe to roll out public high-performing charging for medium and heavy-duty electric vehicles. But this is a drop in the ocean for what will be required. And that's where hydrogen comes in.

Green hydrogen — produced through fossil-free resources such as solar and wind — has tremendous potential to meet the world's future energy demands and investment in this area is growing. Development of fuel cell stacks at cellcentric, Volvo Group's joint venture partnership with Daimler Truck, is progressing well. The company was set up to speed up development, and the first test vehicles are on the road, with fuel cell electric trucks ready for commercialization in the second half of this decade.

But it's not time to bid farewell to the internal combustion engine. While most commercial vehicles will be battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell electric, the internal combustion engine remains a valid and important third technology, and there will still be applications where it is the best solution.

Reality is that in some parts of the world, the charging and infrastructure required to support real-life commercialization and implementation of electric transport solutions is simply not there yet. With internal combustion engines running on natural gas or biogas rather than diesel, we can take a positive climate action there as well.

The technology development in this area is very encouraging. Volvo Penta, for example, has been successfully using hydro-treated vegetable oil to power its fleet of test vessels at its Gothenburg marine testing facility for a number of years and is working with customers to help them make the shift too. Volvo Trucks has gas-powered trucks running on compressed natural gas or liquid natural gas — produced from either natural gas or biogas — readily available that can help organizations to significantly reduce their carbon footprint. These gas-powered trucks have horsepower engines with a performance comparable to their diesel equivalents and are a good complement to electric transports for long, demanding transport tasks.

Another solution — which has the potential to be a game changer — is the combustion engine running on hydrogen. This can play an important role in applications for on and off-road assignments where access to fast charging for electric vehicles is limited or vehicles are double shifted, as a complement to the battery electric and fuel cell electric propulsion technologies. Hydrogen is a clean, storable energy carrier. This means that hydrogen technology will play a key role as we leave the age of fossil fuels behind us. Thanks to its shorter filling times, high payload, versatility and attractive range, green hydrogen is a promising fuel for sustainable transport logistics. To that end, Volvo is part of a consortium called HyCET, where, together with a number of industry players, we are developing trucks powered by hydrogen combustion engines.

It is clear to me that we need options, so that across the board we can act, leaving no one behind. Sustainable heavy transport is within our grasp, but to make it a commercial reality we must not put all our eggs in one basket. We should invest in all three technologies so that we can apply the right solution to each use case.

Together, battery electric, fuel cell electric and the trusty internal combustion engine have the potential to decarbonize the transport industry.

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