Decarbonizing Heavy-Duty Transportation

Clean Energy Trust recently hosted an expert discussion about decarbonizing the heavy-duty transportation industry. Participants included representatives from three different transportation modes - rail, air, and sea. The panel talked about decarbonization and the technological challenges that prevent companies from adopting battery power innovation.


Port of Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA, USA. Photo by Barrett Ward on Unsplash
Port of Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA, USA. Photo by Barrett Ward on Unsplash

What is Decarbonization

Decarbonization is the process of reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the atmosphere that come from human activity. Expert scientists are urging robust decarbonization to mitigate global warming and to save our earth. To achieve decarbonization goals (ideally zero net emission), we must reconsider how we produce and consume energy while looking for alternative processes and renewable and low carbon energy sources.


How Companies are Working Toward Decarbonization

Some well-known companies within the transportation and logistics industries are currently testing alternative renewable and low carbon energy sources. BNSF Railway, Boeing, and Maersk shared their plans during Clean Energy Trust’s webinar.


  • John Lovenburg, Environmental Vice President at BNSF, shared that BNSF is working towards a defined carbon target. The company is focused on reducing carbon intensity by increasing the use of renewable electricity. They have completed battery electrical locomotive prototypes and hydrogen locomotive tests. BNSF plans to test this innovative locomotive paired with diesel locomotives to power a freight train traveling from Stockton to Barstow, CA. The battery-electric locomotive is expected to store 2,400 kilowatt-hours of power and reduce fuel consumption by 10-15% when traveling between Stockton and Barstow.


  • According to Dale Smith, Regional Director & Environmental Strategy at Boeing, Boeing met their carbon neutrality goal through traditional carbon offset trading. The company is strongly committed to renewable energy adoption for its products as well as operations. Boeing has keenly focused on sustainable aviation fuel solutions. Bio-feed stocks, agricultural waste, electro fuels, waste gas, power liquids, and green hydrogen are possible solutions to achieve decarbonization. Boeing has assumed that the company is still several decades away from getting a 777-sized plane up in the air with just electricity.


  • Lee Kinberg, North American Head of Environment & Sustainability at Maersk, said Maersk is committed to net-zero shipping by 2050. They plan to launch their first carbon-neutral vessel by 2023 and currently use alternative fuels like biodiesel (cooking oil converted into energy), methanol and other alcohols, and lignin (the second most common polymer in the world). During the pandemic, the company learned that customers are willing to pay a premium to ship carbon neutral. Maersk has invested USD 1.4 billion to fasten its switch to carbon neutral operations by ordering eight container vessels that can be fueled by green methanol as well as traditional bunker fuel.


All transportation companies need to start making changes today to achieve goals by 2050.


Decarbonization by Transportation Type

  • Railroad companies have a jump-start on decarbonization efforts. They already use diesel fuel and remanufacture older locomotives. The remanufacturing model involves separating parts of locomotives every ten years over a lifespan of 40 years. This enables railroad companies to adopt new technologies during each of these cycles. Currently, rail companies are looking at putting battery stocks under locomotives as one option, but they are not sure if this would create more efficiency.


  • Battery power and other technologies are not as easy for the aviation industry due to energy density requirements. Concerns about safety and physics keep battery power from being a slam-dunk. Some startups and major airline companies such as Airbus are currently working on commercial electric and hybrid-electric propulsion solutions for aircraft. EcoPulse, CityAirbus, Vahana, E-Fan X, E-Fan 1.1, and E-Fan 1.0 are among Airbus’s all-electric airplanes with different features. All these aircraft completed their flight testing and ensured safety as well as high performance.


  • The shipping industry is under increasing pressure to act on the Paris Agreement and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, current technology is not enough to achieve this goal.


  • Sea vessels travel long distances, and there are few places to place outlets for charging purposes which need to be an issue to overcome to maintain efficiency in the seas. Additionally, The IGF Code currently covers natural gas in liquid or compressed form. Regulations for methanol and low-flashpoint diesel fuels and maritime fuel cells should be developed to encourage more and more companies to adopt these technologies.


  • Compared to the other three modes, the trucking industry took the longest way in finding alternative ways to achieve zero-emission goals. Trucks today have available technologies to decrease carbonization – think battery-electric and hybrid heavy-duty trucks. Hybrid vehicles are the most cost-effective alternative for reducing greenhouse gas. While more expensive, battery-electric heavy-duty trucks are expected to most significantly reduce greenhouse gas by 2025 if we develop the correct charging infrastructure.


According to The Wall Street Journal, companies such as Ryder System Inc., Werner Enterprises Inc., NFI Industries, ArcBest Corp., and Cargill Inc. are planning to test a mobile carbon-capture system developed by Remora later this year. Remora captures carbon emissions from a semi-truck and sells the captured carbon dioxide to concrete producers and greenhouses. Ryder’s venture group also invested in Remora’s seed round.


Consumer Demand Leads to Greener Shipping Practices

As consumers demand greener practices from retailers, retailers, in turn, are demanding greener practices from shippers. Companies such as Amazon, Disney, and H&M are requiring their shipping partners to “go green” within the coming years to meet consumer demand. These retailers know that if they do not act now, customers could be lost forever.


All four transportation modes are willing to adopt technologies that are drop-in replacements. However, “new” technologies do not meet the needs to sufficiently replace today’s methods. For that reason, we need more companies working on new technologies and market-based policies to drive economics if we are willing to find the urgently- needed solution to decarbonization.

Some of the breakthrough technologies we see from startups may change the game even further. Some are working on digital and distributed ledger technologies to streamline the carbon offset market (which still has major frictions in it). Others are moving the goalpost from simply reducing or capturing carbon toward actually making use of carbon waste (upcycling carbon) with processes that create new materials and chemicals.

The true solution for decarbonization may be to pair these breakthrough technologies from startups with leading corporations, together with government support, since putting these technologies into action takes capital, dedication, and coordination amongst many players in the value chain.

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