In December of 2022, the UK-based Centre for Sustainable Road Freight (SRF) had its ninth-annual international conference. Reading that, it doesn’t sound like a promising start to an engaging article. But it actually is because of what it clearly shows, I promise.
What’s the provenance of the SRF? It was founded a decade or so ago as a multi-institute research organization with funding from across Europe, and a mandate to bring insights from the world to the UK to help clean up the sector. Heavy ground vehicles (HGVs) represent about 6% of the UK’s CO2 (not CO2e) emissions. And of course, HGVs are also a major source of air pollution, so there are multiple values to fixing this.
The institutes involved aren’t lightweights: the Cambridge University Engineering Department, the Logistics Research Centre of Heriot Watt University, and the Freight and Logistics research group at the University of Westminster. Cambridge is #3 on at least one global university ranking list. Heriot Watt is a Scottish institute founded in 1821 that’s #5 in Scotland and 34th in the UK, and a still respectable 281st globally. All three have extensive international networks. There’s a certain academic rigor associated with them, along with a whiff of pipe tobacco and tweed that needs a good cleaning. And the SRF has strong international links with partner research centers in China, India, and South Africa.
What about the conference? Well, having attended a lot of conferences professionally, and reviewed the proceedings a number of times, I have a perspective on what makes a good one. If it’s mostly a trade show, and there’s a sideline of presentations, I tend to consider that a bad conference from a quality of presentations perspective. The trade show is the point (and there’s nothing wrong with that) and the presentations are a side show, typically marketing for firms which have booths there. I’ve presented at a number of the latter, so I have some experience of them.
The alternative is a conference where the content is the point and the vendors aren’t. The SRF conference is the latter. More decent quality output, very little vendor fluff. One keynote was a bit fluffy, the Mahindra & Mahindra presentation, but by contrast Volvo’s and Siemens’ were pretty robust for vendor presentations.
It was a three-day effort with a full agenda with three tracks and a poster session, also indicative that it was serious about getting experts together to learn and challenge other experts. Single track conferences are also indicative that it’s more marketing than content. And some of the sessions were distinctly narrow, for example the ones on brake and tire wear, something also indicative of a conference where deep experts were presenting to deep experts and being challenged on their views.
And it really was international, albeit dominated by UK and European presenters. There were African, Indian, Bangladesh, and Japanese presenters. China and North America weren’t represented as far as I could tell, which is somewhat of a pity, but still the geographic coverage was large, and Europe does, after all, have a lot of developed countries with a lot of heavy ground vehicles.
So all in all, it’s a credible, broad conference with solid institutions and international experts. Government, NGO, academic, logistics customers, and heavy ground vehicle manufacturers were all represented.
So what does the agenda of this very credible conference tell us?
It was mostly about battery and grid-tied electrification of road transport, the primary wedge and the one I consider likely to be virtually the only model in coming decades. The 400,000 electric trucks on the roads of China’s massive cities and which deliver goods regionally tell us the direction here. The obvious advantages of overhead caternary grid-connections with battery-electric trucks, as well as the prevalence on many European freight routes today, provides a clear glimpse into the future. And there’s little reason to believe that what Baden-Württemberg decided about hybrid battery grid-tied trains — 3x cheaper to operate than hydrogen and we’re going to go battery-electric — doesn’t apply even more strongly to HGVs.
Next most covered fuel was biofuels, which I consider to be something that in the end game need to be reserved for actually hard to decarbonize modes of transportation, specifically longer haul aviation and shipping. I consider it a bridge fuel for HGVs at best, but it shows up in a few presentations and is the focus of a couple. One of the focused presentations was about harmonizing emissions, which is a useful technical discussion and something that’s needed. The other was a poster that reasonably addressed concerns about sustainability in the biofuel sector, something I consider worth addressing but not as important as stalk cellulosic biofuels and decarbonization of agriculture will run in parallel to address the majority of concerns. Mark Z. Jacobson and I have discussed aspects of this, and his concern is black carbon and its high GWP. That’s a reasonable concern and needs to be addressed. Biofuels will never be as clean as directly using electricity, even though they are much cleaner than fossil fuels, so mitigating their downsides remains important. But still, not a major focus for HGVs at the conference compared to grid-tied and battery-electric pathways.
Only one presentation dealt with hydrogen, which is good as that’s a dead end for transportation except as a supplement in some biofuels’ processes. The presentation was from researchers at the Scottish institution, Heriot Watt University, which is unsurprising given Scotland’s success with oil and gas in the North Sea and ongoing attempts by the usual suspects like SGN to ram various hydrogen for energy schemes down society’s throat. The presentation was on the completely new infrastructure that was required for hydrogen for HGVs and was asserted to be a cost optimization study. Hopefully the audience realized that the takeaway was that it required an absurd new set of infrastructure that was deeply expensive and no one was going to build. It’s hard to say as the presentation excluded figures and comparisons to electrification. Every time I do the math (perhaps a dozen assessments since 2014) there is no economically viable pathway for hydrogen.
In other words, the conference agenda makes it clear that the people who are spending their careers focused on this appear to be aligned with my assessment of the space. Battery trucks with some grid-ties are going to dominate. Biofuels will help bridge a bit. Hydrogen has no place. Interestingly, as I look at my quadrant chart from last year, I note that synthetic fuels, which build hydrocarbon fuels from the base molecules, don’t even show up on the agenda for the conference, which is appropriate. As I documented carefully in my case study of Carbon Engineering’s pretense that that was what the end game for their direct air capture Rube Goldberg device was, synthetic fuels would be vastly higher cost and higher carbon than battery-electric or biofuels, and so much more expensive than fossil fuels that there was no bridging the gap.
As always, the physics tells us the economics. If you are trying to get to the economics via the marketing, you’ll end up throwing good money after bad.
Last note. When I started this assessment, prior to digging into The Centre for Sustainable Road Freight, I had no idea my contact Professor David Cebon of Cambridge was an executive of the Centre. I’ve used his excellent Sankey diagram of the variance between hydrogen vs heat pumps for residential heating in the UK multiple times as it’s an excellent illustration of the deep inefficiencies and hence cost of using green hydrogen as an energy store. Cebon is a founding member of the Hydrogen Science Coalition, along with Paul Martin, Tom Baxter, and other deep energy experts in North America and Europe. It was formed to bring facts about the physics and economics of hydrogen as a store of energy to the discussion, as mostly it had been marketing led. I suspect that many hydrogen advocates would consider this a reason to dismiss the conference’s results, but I don’t.
And so, the agenda of a substantive, credible international conference on heavy ground vehicles makes it clear from that perspective that it’s batteries and electricity that will dominate. At the coal face of a conference that involved governmental figures, academics, logistics customers, and OEMs, the detailed technical conversations are almost all about how battery-electric trucks will work in the coming decades.
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