New European Heavy Freight Decarbonization Study Is Much Better Than Most

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In recent months I’ve had a sideline of reviewing major studies from purportedly credible organizations on decarbonization of heavy freight vehicles, along with hydrogen for energy studies. They’ve mostly been very bad, with outright errors, unsupportable assumptions and clear evidence of groupthink — gruppendenken for the German ones — making the obviously incorrect results seem reasonable to the authors and reviewers, or at least impossible to question. It’s a relief to be able to spend some time looking at a report that gets it right, RISE Research Institutes of Sweden’s just published study 2035 Joint Impact Assessment of Greenhouse Gas Reducing Pathways for EU Road Transport. But before we get into that, let’s take a brief tour through the previous reports.

US think tank International Council on Clean Transportation published a report with a Germany-based lead author that found that hydrogen freight trucking would have only 10% higher energy costs per kilometers traveled than battery-electric trucking, when both scenarios were refueling at exactly the same truck stops, yet defended their indefensible results. They also had error- and false assumption-riddled reports on hydrogen’s role in aviation and maritime shipping.

The Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) has a set of papers on the role of hydrogen for energy that don’t withstand scrutiny, having hired an oil and gas industry economist to lead its hydrogen efforts. That lead used to poke me on social media, but has been quiet as a mouse since I published a 14,000-word analysis of RMI’s hydrogen-oriented publications and a recommended strategy for the hallowed organization. Amusingly, I’m sharing billing with the current CEO of RMI at a conference in April. It’s virtual sadly, so I won’t get to ask him in person if it rose to his attention or if they are doing anything about it (unlikely in both cases).

The EU’s publicly funded and independent Joint Research Center published a 2022 study which was riddled with low-ball assumptions for manufacturing and transporting hydrogen and summarized with charts and a policy paper that would lead readers to believe that imported green hydrogen could be pumped into trucks for €2 to €3 per kilogram, a farcically low number that ignores physics, economics, and basic commercial interactions.

Germany’s publicly funded and independent PIK Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research published a study which found that 9% to 26% of the EU’s energy share would come from green hydrogen. However, its results included a chart that made it clear that its underpinning REMAIN and RISE-EU models had very low costs of green hydrogen embedded in them and the researchers were either unable to see that green hydrogen that was costed at 50% of the cost of industrial electricity rates wasn’t remotely reasonable. As a result, the entire economic modeling was deeply wrong and its results and conclusions were wrong too.

The Germany energy agency dena — yes, there’s a trend here of German agencies and individuals suffering deeply from systemic gruppendenken around hydrogen for energy — released several studies which included gems like seasonal hydrogen energy storage in homes, assertions that hydrogen in pipelines was going to be a big thing in Europe, making hydrogen at community wind farms dotted around the country, hydrogen being fit for purpose for heavy goods transportation and more.

Most recently the misleadingly named Clean Freight Coalition’s funded report by consultancy Roland Berger made sure that electric trucks and batteries were expensive and low-range, requiring lots more chargers and then platinum-plated charging costs to arrive at what is presumably a preordained result of a trillion dollars of unfunded money that the impoverished trucking industry was going to have to pony up.

It’s possible I missed one or more in there as I’ve been reading reports the way some people watch TikTok dance craze videos. I’ve been asked a few times if anybody else is actually reading the reports, as they are all so obviously flawed when you dig into the details. My answer is that 99% of people who are ‘informed’ by the reports — policy makers, investors, strategists, politicians — likely only read the executive summary, a policy brief based on the analysis or the headlines in media, or just see the most shared graphics from the reports, most of which are deeply misleading.

As I said earlier, it’s a relief to be able to discuss a report that I have no reservations about. Public discourse about hydrogen as an energy carrier for heat, electricity, and transportation is deeply skewed by a lot of very bad reports. That really only helps the fossil fuel industry because they have a can’t lose strategy in play. Either hydrogen for energy becomes a thing and they are the only provider of reasonably priced, somewhat low-carbon blue hydrogen with lashings of governmental subsidies for CCS, or they delay accelerated electrification for a decade allowing continued sale of their products for longer.

And so, to the report.

Full disclosure: The lead researcher, Jakob Rogstadius of RISE, reached out to me and several other analysts, researchers, and corporate trucking representatives to ask us to sit on a reference and review committee. Over the months, as the report emerged, we reviewed and commented on underpinning assumptions, bringing more literature forward to enable a more realistic study. Participants included Daimler’s hydrogen trucking lead, so multiple perspectives were included in the effort to reduce the potential for bias or groupthink.

This process is what triggered me to look at publicly available data from bus fleets and refueling stations in California. I found that hydrogen fuel cell buses had 50% more maintenance costs than diesel buses, not the 1:1 and improving ratio assumed in many studies, and that there is no reason not to assume this ratio for hydrogen fuel cell trucks.

On refueling, I found that the light vehicle refueling stations dispensed an average of only 54 kilograms of hydrogen — the equivalent of 54 gallons of gasoline — a day, that the stations were out of service roughly 2,000 hours or 20% more time than they actually spent dispensing hydrogen, and that my initial estimate was that hydrogen refueling station maintenance costs were an order of magnitude higher than those assumed in most studies.

These costs alone make hydrogen for trucks economically non-viable unless the hydrogen was completely free.

My work rarely ascends to the level of being peer-reviewed, but is increasingly being treated as gray literature in academic studies and reports. Gray literature is a source of information that consists of government, academic, and business information that is shared outside of traditional academic publishing channels, typically not peer-reviewed, and sometimes pre-prints. In this case, my assessments of California’s maintenance and refueling were cited and lower results than I found were used. They were not material to the outcome in any event, as realistic costs of hydrogen were used. With luck, some academic will get funding to do a good study on empirical results from multiple deployments to come up with a commonly usable number.

Let’s start by looking a key finding that’s unambiguously stated in the abstract of the paper:

“Biofuels, hydrogen, and e-fuels are not found to have potential to significantly contribute to further GHG emissions before 2035 due to scalability and technological limitations. BEVs emerge as the only viable strategy for achieving zero tailpipe emissions at scale.”

That’s both correct and unequivocal. It’s also been my position for years, so of course I’m pleased with it. The Daimler hydrogen trucking representatives, perhaps not so much.

But that’s not as rosy as it seems. The barriers to decarbonizing road transportation — and the study modeled both light vehicles and heavy goods vehicles — are high and the timeframe is short, so achieving EU goals for decarbonization of this segment do not appear to be achievable without a very large increase in focus, governmental expenditures and acceleration of deployment. While Europe is one of the leading geographies on electrification of road transportation, only lagging China’s extraordinary deployment of well over a million battery-electric trucks and buses over the past 14 years, it has left it too late and hydrogen has successfully distracted the continent from effective climate action (my opinion, not the report’s).

While the study included light vehicles across the different modes, it’s clear to me (and clear from the study results) that battery-electric cars and light trucks have won. As I said to Rogstadius at some point in the process, it made sense to include hydrogen pathways for heavy trucking as that’s the only segment of road transportation where there’s any remaining real debate, even if in my opinion it’s a foregone conclusion that battery-electric will win there too. As a result, I’ll mostly only talk about the heavy goods vehicle results.

Figure 5-2: Distance-levelized lifecycle costs of heavy-duty vehicles from RISE report with permission

Ah, error bars. Such a delight to see in a transportation report instead of just plain numbers.

This is pretty obvious. It’s the full costing of different options including capital, operational and maintenance costs across the full range of options for 2035. Costs are in 2023 monetary values and exclude value-added taxes.

Carbon pricing is included for all options at the social cost of carbon, specifically at the EU’s budgetary guidance for its emissions trading scheme (ETS) for business cases. As I noted late last year, the EU, Canada, and the US EPA are all fairly harmonized on the social cost of carbon, and the EU’s budgetary guidance makes its policy intent to have the ETS and linked carbon border adjustment priced at social cost in the future. In 2034, that’s €260 per ton of carbon dioxide or equivalents. The study does include leakage rates for hydrogen and its indirect global warming potential, so the full emissions of hydrogen manufacturing, distribution, and dispensing are priced.

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As the abstract baldly stated, biofuels, synthetic fuels, and hydrogen have no economic merit in comparison to batteries in a realistic total cost of ownership evaluation.

The slow and fast charging of battery-electric truck scenarios are relatively straightforward, but the dynamic charging warrants a bit of discussion.

Overhead or road-embedded power delivery systems have been around for a long-time. Many cities had or still have trolley buses and streetcars with connections to grid power. A key portion of this report was to assess electrified road systems for Europe to assess the cost, greenhouse gas reductions, and scenarios.

Clearly electrified road systems would be cheapest, but the barriers were high and the study concluded that while they had merit, given the requirement to start building them effectively now for even the lowest coverage model of 50,000 kilometers, there was little chance of them achieving significant penetration for 2035.

But what about greenhouse gas emissions? While alternatives to battery-electric trucks are just going to be more expensive, what about the point, which is decarbonization?


Figure 5-3: Distance-levelized lifecycle fossil GHG emissions per technology from the RISE report with permission
Figure 5-3: Distance-levelized lifecycle fossil GHG emissions per technology from the RISE report with permission

Yes, the alternatives to batteries in trucks are much higher emissions. Truck emissions are heavily skewed toward the energy used to move them down the road, not the batteries in the trucks. As a result, every extra greenhouse gas in energy pathways gets multiplied by a lot. Electricity continues to decarbonize, and the EU average is expected to be a CO2e intensity of 50 g/kWh to 70 g/kWh, grossed up to 90 g/kWh to account for efficiency losses in transmission and distribution. By comparison, the US grid average in 2022 was 390 g/kWh.

Battery trucks are going to be a lot cheaper and a lot lower GHG emissions. Challenges with rolling them out mean that in the shorter time frame of 2035, there will still be a lot of diesel trucks on the roads of Europe, especially eastern and southern Europe, which tend to run vehicles longer and to buy used vehicles from northern and western Europe.

As lead author Rogstadius said in his presentation during the opening of a two-day conference — video of opening and first three presentations — organized by the Swedish Electromobility Centre March 18th and 19th, heavy goods vehicles have been considered a hard to abate segment, but it’s actually much easier than it seems.

Of course, that’s assuming appropriate charging infrastructure, which as keynote speaker David Cebon, founder of the Centre for Sustainable Road Freight at Cambridge said in his talk, was the somewhat hard part. Hence, the ‘infrastructure’ part in the conference’s heading, Charging Ahead: The Electrification of Transportation Infrastructure. Cebon’s presentation was on modeling related to different depot, public, and destination charging scenarios compared to electrified road systems and the implications for battery sizes and hence costs for trucks. As his modeling and the RISE paper shows, the cheapest systemic solution is a significant amount of electrified road systems, but that doesn’t mean that the political will for a substantial infrastructure project that’s highly visible to the public exists in Europe.

It was an honor to be asked to participate to help somewhat shape the study and I’m pleased to see that the results are aligned with what’s obvious to anyone who has done the bottom up estimates with realistic perspectives on batteries and hydrogen. So many studies to-date have internalized hydrogen for energy lowball costs that the reality was getting lost in the misinformation. Hopefully this study will cut through some of the noise.

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