Image courtesy of Volvo Trucks

Electric Trucks & Buses Have Lowest Emissions — ICCT Report

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The European Commission is expected to release new proposed emissions regulations for heavy duty trucks and buses this week. A leaked draft of the new rules obtained by Germany’s Tagesspiegel Background indicates the EU Commission will heavily favor battery-electric vehicles over those powered by hydrogen fuel cells and so-called e-fuels. ICCT (International Council on Clean Transportation) published a study on February 6 that strongly supports those new rules.

In an interview with Electrive, ICCT program manager, Felipe Rodríguez, said, “Environmentally conscious fleets can rest assured that they are making the right decision in procuring battery electric trucks today. On the other hand, those betting on low carbon fuels should revise their decarbonisation strategy.” ICCT summarized its findings in a press release.


This study is a life-cycle comparison of the greenhouse gas emissions from combustion, electric, and hydrogen trucks and buses in Europe. The analysis evaluates the lifetime emissions of different powertrains on a fully harmonized basis, comparing both the emissions attributable to fuel production and consumption as well as the emissions attributable to the vehicle’s manufacturing. It investigates the current best-in-class diesel models against their natural gas, battery electric, and hydrogen fuel cell electric alternatives in the European market.

The key findings of the report are the following:

    • Battery electric trucks and buses outperform their diesel, hydrogen, and natural gas counterparts in reducing GHG emissions over their lifetime. 2021 vehicle models produce at least 63% lower lifetime emissions compared to diesel even when using the EU’s average electricity grid mix, which is not fully renewable but will continue to improve during the lifetime of the vehicles. Projections show a 92% emission reduction when 100% renewable electricity is used.
    • Fuel cell electric trucks and buses run on hydrogen produced from fossil fuels reduce GHG emissions by 15% to 33% compared to their diesel counterparts in a lifecycle analysis. The emissions reduction depends heavily on the source of hydrogen, which is mostly produced from natural gas today. With hydrogen solely produced with renewable electricity, emissions fall by up to 89%.
    • Natural gas trucks and buses provide marginal GHG reductions, at best, compared to diesel. For the 2021 scenario, we find that natural gas trucks and buses may reduce emissions from 4% to 18% compared to their diesel counterparts.
    • The biggest portion of lifecycle GHG emissions produced by trucks and buses over their lifetime corresponds to the use (or fuel consumption) phase, not vehicle manufacturing. For diesel and natural gas trucks, the consumed fuel accounts for over 90% of their lifetime emissions. Thus, the higher vehicle and battery production emissions of battery electric trucks are offset by their high efficiency and low lifetime fuel cycle emissions.

ICCT Downplays Fuel Cells

“There is potential to reduce GHG emissions in this sector through different powertrain options (electric batteries, fuel cell batteries, and combustion engines), and different fuel or energy choices (hydrogen, biofuels, natural gas). The climate impacts of these technologies and fuels vary over the lifetime of the vehicle model. From extracting and processing raw materials to operation and maintenance, some powertrain options are more energy intensive to build than their counterparts, while some fuel sources can produce higher emissions during their production or use,” the ICCT report says.

There is always an enormous difference between theory and reality. We all know that hydrogen fuel cells have no emissions that harm the environment. The only byproducts are water and heat. That’s great and for fuel cell advocates, that’s all they want to tell us about. But the source of the hydrogen makes all the difference, and today the majority of it relies on the reformation of methane. Yes, someday when the world has abundant clean energy resources and electricity is too cheap to meter, excess electricity can be used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen and when that day gets here, the ICCT report acknowledges that fuel cells will be welcome with open arms.

But that day is not here yet and won’t be for quite some time — decades perhaps. Until then, hydrogen fuel cells are a scam promoted by fossil fuel interests to prolong their hegemony over the fuels we use to power our heavy duty trucks and buses.

Here is the relevant portion of the ICCT report:

“Fuel cell battery trucks and buses run on hydrogen produced from fossil fuels reduce GHG emissions by 15 to 33% compared to their diesel counterparts in a lifecycle analysis. The emissions reduction depends heavily on the source of hydrogen. With hydrogen solely produced with renewable electricity, emissions fall by up to 89%. In contrast to battery electric trucks and buses, the emissions of hydrogen trucks and buses are not drastically reduced when using a non-renewable energy source — in this case, fossil hydrogen.”

ICCT Feb 2023
Image credit: International Council on Clean Transportation

“The biggest portion of lifecycle GHG emissions produced by trucks and buses over their lifetime corresponds to the use (or fuel consumption) phase, not to the vehicle manufacturing. For diesel and natural gas trucks, the consumed fuel accounts for over 90% of their lifetime emissions. Thus, the higher vehicle and battery production emissions of battery electric trucks are offset by their high efficiency and low lifetime fuel cycle emissions,” the ICCT says.

Natural  Gas & E-Fuels

The ICCT analysis is unfavorable to compressed natural gas and so-called e-fuels. It finds that commercial vehicles powered by natural gas hardly perform better than diesel trucks. In fact, for a 40-ton articulated truck (what we colonials call a tractor trailer), its calculations indicate CNG versions have slightly higher emissions than an equivalent diesel vehicle. That is because of the methane emitted during the operation of the vehicle as well as during the extraction and delivery process. The ICCT concludes that even small emission savings through the use of natural gas are virtually nil when the short term climate impact of methane emissions is taken into account.

E-fuels fared only slightly better. The report finds they need five times as much electricity for their production as battery-only propulsion and that doesn’t take into account other harmful factors associated with producing them.

Fair & Balanced

In its analysis, the ICCT made a good faith effort to assess all factors that impact the lifetime emissions of heavy trucks and buses. For instance, based on input from Volvo Trucks, it includes the impact of replacing the battery — which could be as large as 900 kWh — once during a truck’s 20 year useful life and still the battery-electric scenario is best from an emissions standpoint. It also notes that the energy grid in Europe is slowly getting greener and that battery recycling will likely lower total emissions from battery manufacturing further in the near future.

Still, Felipe Rodriguez told Electrive, “This does not mean we cannot expect improvements in combustion engines. Diesel and electric trucks will coexist for the next two decades as we fully transition to zero emission powertrains. Truck makers will still profit from selling millions of new heavy duty diesel engines in the coming decades, and Euro 7 can ensure they are as clean as in other parts of the world.”

It will be interesting to see what the EU Commission draft rules actually say when they are released this week. Every indication is they will strongly support battery-electric trucks and buses as the best way to decarbonize Europe’s heavy truck and bus fleet.

UPDATE: We reached out to ICCT with some clarifying questions, and received the following information from Nikita Pavlenko, one of the authors of the report:

1. What percentage of hydrogen in Europe is made from renewables?

Currently near zero % of EU hydrogen is green

2. Is there a difference between biofuels and e-fuels?

Yes, biofuels are produced from biomass, which can include purpose grown crops, cellulosic wastes & residues, or biomethane from anaerobic decomposition.

E-fuels are synthetic fuels produced from captured carbon and electricity, which *could* be produced from bioelectricity and/or biogenic captured carbon, but could also be produced from wind & solar electricity in conjunction with captured fossil gas or direct air capture CO2. In the ICCT study, we assumed they were made from wind & solar.

3. Biofuels are currently classified as “green” by EU. Is that about to change?

The EU has multiple categories of biofuels under its policies with different sets of restrictions and incentives. Under the Renewable Energy Directive, biofuels used for transport are required to have at least a 65% GHG savings compared to fossil fuel to qualify, with likely revisions to phase out high-risk biofuels like palm oil, and a cap on food-based biofuels like those made from rapeseed. There are also incentives for advanced biofuels like those made from wastes & residues.


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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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