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