Looking to a green freight future

One of the positive outcomes of the Covid-19 lockdown in New Zealand was it initiated a greater understanding by Government of both the necessity and the many inter-connected parts of moving freight.

Road freight transport presents a conundrum for this Government. They don’t like fossil-fuelled trucks on roads, but they need them. We have an economy based on exports and imports and 93% of the total tonnes of freight moved in New Zealand goes by road. This has possibly never been more important to the economy than it is now.

To the uninitiated, trucks don’t fit with the climate change narrative. But the Government can’t tax and regulate trucks off the road until there is some viable alternative to fuelling them and the infrastructure to support that.

The Ministry of Transport (MoT) has put its toe in the water to explore transitioning road freight to alternative green fuels in its recently released 2020 Green Freight Working Paper. The Road Transport Forum engaged with MoT as they gathered information for this project and it was an extremely worthwhile experience. It is always good to plan for the future and we can’t put our head in the sand and pretend we can run on diesel forever.

It’s not just the Government calling for greener solutions across all aspects of our lives. Many road freight transport operators will be finding customers wanting to deep dive into how they are running and measuring sustainable business practices.

We are all aware of the current limitations, but we also need to look at the opportunities. Another thing Covid-19 has taught us is you simply don’t know what’s ahead and global shocks have a way of changing things.

The MoT working paper looks at the three existing options as alternative fuels – electricity, green hydrogen and biofuels – but acknowledges a lot more work needs to be done for any of these to be viable at scale. It also notes that there is no one-size-fits-all solution and other options could emerge.

Alternative green fuels are a growing area of interest and investment globally but the passenger vehicle market has developed more than truck manufacturing. So, choices that can be made in New Zealand will be constrained by what is available. There also has to be the appropriate infrastructure to support any alternative fuel options. Freight companies are unlikely to invest in vehicles that cannot be easily recharged/refuelled throughout the country.

The working paper is a signal, if you like, to Government that there is a lot more work to do before finding viable green freight solutions. It takes a first look at the fuels, vehicles and infrastructure challenges and opportunities. We are pleased to see it notes there are sustainability concerns with batteries for electric vehicles, in particular their production and disposal. We feel in the rush to endorse electric vehicles, this has been somewhat overlooked.

Backing one horse will not be the way to go. Transitioning road freight in New Zealand to alternative green fuels has to happen, but it isn’t going to be overnight. That means there is time to thoroughly analyse the options.

The working paper says: “The Government should consider options that provide the freight industry with flexibility to transition to the alternative green fuels that are best suited to their organisations.”

We think that is sound advice.

If the Government really wants to go big on green freight, the opportunity is there to back ourselves as a smart, clean, green country and come up with the solutions ourselves.

We are known for our problem-solving and innovation, so let’s lead the way here if we can.

I recommend reading the MoT’s 2020 Green Freight Working Paper which you can find here.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Sustainability makes good business sense

Regardless of your views on climate change, having sustainable practices and goals is pretty much essential to a successful customer-facing business.

Customers are demanding good environmental measures through their supply chains and if you are in the business of trying to attract younger workers, they want to work for companies that take protecting the planet seriously.

Transport is responsible for about 18% of New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas emissions each year, and the race is on to reduce that. While plenty of car brands are developing light vehicles to run on “clean and renewable” alternatives to fossil fuels, there has not been the same progress in truck manufacturing, because the fuel alternatives available present some challenges when upping the size scale.

So, it was exciting to attend the launch of New Zealand’s first long-haul, electric-vehicle road freighter this week. Auckland-based laundry business Alsco put the Hino truck on display at Eden Park, with Energy and Resources Minister Dr Megan Woods and Climate Change Minister James Shaw speaking at the event.

Alsco’s Group General Manager Mark Roberts had a great story to tell about the company’s sustainability journey and he spoke about taking the gamble to pioneer intercity electric vehicle freight movement. He said it wasn’t about waiting for the production to be perfect, but on starting today, to focus on three important business aspects – people, planet and prosperity. He outlined Alsco’s “big, bold, meaningful goals” for 2030, including reducing water use by one-third (remembering they are a laundry business); generating zero waste; reducing CO2, including by eliminating coal as an energy source; and converting one-third of the vehicle fleet to electric energy.

It’s important to take a sustainability view across the business and to get staff buy-in. Those companies running heavy vehicles that haven’t thought about sustainability should start, right now. There is quite a bit that can be done, including adopting the current best technology to manage environmental considerations with fuel efficiency and reduced emissions. This will have an immediate positive impact on the environment.

The Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA) runs a low emission vehicles contestable fund. This supports projects that encourage innovation and investment in electric and other low emissions vehicles in New Zealand. It offers up to $7 million a year to co-fund projects with private and public sector partners and Alsco sourced some of this funding to start electrifying its fleet.

Alsco’s EV truck will do the Rotorua/Tauranga and Rotorua/Taupo routes, travelling about 286km/day. Fully laden, it will be up to 22.5 tonnes in weight.

It is estimated to save at least 25,000 litres of diesel and 67,610 kilograms of CO2e per year. Roberts said there was in fact, a compelling argument that supported the higher investment for a heavy EV compared to a diesel equivalent, due to a swift payback on operational expense. He said operational savings would justify the higher capital expense by recouping the additional investment in less and six months, thereafter providing a consistent financial advantage over a similarly tasked diesel truck.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw said in his speech that “innovation is a function of constraints”. There is no doubt that the constraints on fossil fuel vehicles are tightening and for the wider heavy vehicle industry, Alsco’s journey will be one to watch.

You can find out more about Alsco’s EVs and sustainability plans here.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Let’s get practical about climate change

While politicians and celebrities gnash their teeth and shout to anyone who will listen that we are in the middle of a climate change “crisis” or “emergency”, a lot of others are looking at practical and workable solutions to stop the mercury rising.

None more so than those at the local government level, where they actually mop up after a real crisis or emergency, including those caused by dramatic weather patterns or natural disasters which generally impact at a local, rather than national, level.

So, it was interesting this week to present at and be part of a panel discussion at the Road Controlling Authorities Forum in Wellington, looking at the impacts of climate change in relation to transport.

Without question the freight and logistics sector will face increasing pressure from both government and our customers to reduce emissions. But we possibly aren’t as bad as people think.

The energy sector accounts for about 40 percent of New Zealand’s Greenhouse Gas emissions, with transport fuels about 17 percent of that total. About five to seven percent of emissions come from the heavy transport industry.

Road freight transport intersects with those controlling roads on the climate change front in areas such as delays due to extreme weather and storm events; infrastructure condition deteriorating faster with extreme heat or excessive rain; and bad roads causing delays and increasing safety risks such as, more road works, driver fatigue, and additional time-costs for end consumers.

In a real crisis or emergency, local and central government will be more reliant on roads than other parts of the transport network. With increased coastal inundation, or a natural disaster like an earthquake, many rail lines are quickly out of commission. Roads also suffer, as quite a lot of our main highways are vulnerable to such events, but there are usually alternate routes and events are localised, so other parts of New Zealand can supply an affected area, by road.

New Zealand is leading the way in looking at mitigating climate change and we support the principles of the Zero Carbon Bill, currently being considered by the Environment Select Committee.

But we  think that addressing climate change is more than focusing on net zero emissions by 2050. It is also looking at making our infrastructure network resilient and planning for events along the way.

On the emissions front, road freight is a sector that quickly adopts technology efficiencies. Noxious emissions from trucks have been slashed by 98 percent in the past 20 years, through use of technology. European emission standards are applied to much of the heavy vehicle fleet to reduce levels of harmful exhaust emissions, currently Euro Standard 6, which requires an additive to be used in fuelling heavy diesel trucks.

While there are electric options for car drivers, any real alternative fuel vehicle at the heavy truck level is still some way off. In the rush to remove reliance on fossil fuels, we need alternative energy sources in place. And we need to look at the whole picture, for example, the batteries that power green vehicles have been linked to human rights abuses in the mining of lithium and cobalt.

Our industry is keen to find solutions in New Zealand – we are known for our problem-solving and innovation, so let’s lead the way here if we can.

TIL Logistics has partnered with New Plymouth-based Hiringa Energy to develop hydrogen fuel cell technology for its transport vehicle fleet and they hope to begin their first hydrogen vehicle trials in 2020.

It will be interesting to see the results of the trials both here with Hiringa and overseas, where similar research and development is underway, as to whether hydrogen fuel cells and the complex infrastructure that comes along with that technology can displace the battery-based electric motor as the clean alternative for heavy transport.

I recently visited Tranzurban, in Wellington, and using their own ingenuity they have built the first full electric double-decker buses in the world, made up from components they have sourced and put together in a unique way.

There’s still a long way to go, but our industry is poised to take a bigger role in the movement to combat climate change in a global sense. At the same time, individual companies are looking at their sustainability obligations to meet their customers’ expectations and be good global citizens. And when the real crisis, catastrophe, or disaster happens, we’ll be there delivering the goods.

Please note: Being uncomfortable with changing the meaning of the words crisis and emergency does not make me a climate change denier.

– Nick Leggett – CEO, Road Transport Forum