Energy transition – How freight transport is becoming climate-neutral

You can’t tell by looking at things. Some have traveled great distances, like the raw materials for the laptop on which these lines were written or the steaming coffee in the mug. Some, like the oak table top or the rye for bread, come from the region. Whether food, clothing or electrical appliances: All things in our everyday life have to be brought here first. Without transportation, they would be missing.

Freight traffic has increased significantly in recent years. Austrian companies alone moved 400 million tonnes in road traffic in 2019. In 2015 it was just under 348 million tons. Another 200 million tons come from foreign trucks, because Austria is a transit country. More than 84 percent of the transport volume in Austria falls on the road. Because it’s faster and more flexible there. But that has an impact on the carbon footprint. Since 1990, greenhouse gas emissions from road freight transport have doubled to almost nine million tons in 2019.

More goods, more kilometers driven, more emissions. That is bad for the environment and is diametrically opposed to the climate targets. Because by 2040 Austria wants CO2-be neutral. The amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere must no longer be increased. Freight traffic must therefore be brought on a climate course. But how is that supposed to work? Are electric trucks the future or is it hydrogen propulsion? How should the transport turnaround be financed? And what are the biggest hurdles?

Trucks emit a lot of CO2 out. The two most promising technologies for making transport more environmentally friendly are battery and hydrogen propulsion. For Urs Maier, a lot speaks in favor of the battery. “Battery technology is there faster than fuel cells for trucks, also because the car market is clearly heading in the direction of batteries,” says the project manager for energy and infrastructure at the Berlin think tank Agora Verkehrswende.

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Battery or fuel cell?

But there are still some hurdles. Some truck manufacturers are working on their own electric models, but the price scares off many customers. E-trucks are currently around twice as expensive as trucks with fossil fuels. “The technical possibilities already exist, but the economic sense is still missing,” says Alexander Klacska, chairman of the transport and traffic division in the Austrian Chamber of Commerce (WKÖ). For him, the question arises as to where fast charging stations will be built in order to be able to charge entire fleets.

Heavy trucks and articulated trucks could also get their electricity from an overhead line. The principle – similar to that of trains – is currently being tested on three “eHighway” test routes in Germany. Apart from the costs, there are still many question marks behind the system. “The overhead line is the most efficient system on paper. But it only makes sense on high-performance routes,” says traffic expert Michael Schwendinger from the Austrian Transport Club (VCÖ). The lines must not end at the border. “You need a European consensus.”

In order to cover long distances without interruptions for charging processes, the fuel cell comes into play alongside the battery. First of all, green hydrogen must be obtained from renewable energies – i.e. electricity. According to Maier, the efficiency is 70 percent. Energy is also lost for compression and reconversion. Maier is currently assuming a mix of technologies. “Two thirds of the mileage is provided by electric trucks – that is, with overhead lines or battery-electric – and one third by fuel cell vehicles.” He stressed the importance of gaining practical experience and suggested corridors of 300 to 500 kilometers for testing.

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The crux of the matter for both technologies, however, is: Is there even enough electricity available to electrify freight transport? Electricity is the energy source of the future. In Austria, 72 percent of the electricity demand is already covered by renewable energies. But electricity only accounts for around 20 percent of total energy consumption. If entire industries, traffic and daily life are to be electrified in the future, very large amounts of clean electricity will be required. “To electrify the entire mobility sector, we need an additional 71 TWh of electricity, that’s 65 times the Freudenau power plant. We are miles away from that,” says Klacska from the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber.

What is certain is that manufacturers have to reduce their emissions. Because the EU also gives CO for its truck fleets2Limit values. Otherwise there is a risk of high fines. “The best would be the traffic that does not take place. But it is unrealistic to shift the entire freight traffic in Austria to the rail,” says VCÖ expert Schwendinger.

Expand e-truck fleet

The logistics company DB Schenker has already started switching to electric trucks. DB Schenker has 56 “eCanters” from Daimler Benz in use throughout Europe, four of them in Austria. The proportion of electronics should grow. “In order to achieve our climate targets, we will gradually expand our e-truck fleet,” DB Schenker announced on request. The exact amount and speed depend on the availability, the infrastructure and when a break-even point of the costs compared to diesel can be reached.

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On long-haul routes, DB Schenker relies not only on electric trucks but also on fuel cell trucks. As soon as they are available, they want to test hydrogen trucks on the line. DB Schenker aims to reduce land transport emissions by 34 percent by 2030. It is currently at minus 24 percent.

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