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Modern IVECO truck

New energy sources for road transport

Road freight transport is growing steadily. However, plans to limit its greenhouse gas emissions are not keeping pace. Considerable progress has been made in recent years in decarbonising vehicles such as cars, buses and light commercial vehicles, but progress is much slower for medium and heavy trucks.

Beyond natural gas, the constant search for sustainable mobility that gradually approaches “zero emissions”, taking into account the increasingly restrictive policies coming from the European Union, means that vehicle manufacturers and other enterprising companies in this field are in full development of alternative energies to diesel, such as electric motors, biomethane, LNG or the hydrogen fuel cell.

The importance of heavy-duty transport for the energy transition

Heavy-duty road transport accounts for less than 10% of the global road vehicle fleet, but the large diesel engines used and the high average annual mileage mean that the truck sector contributes to about 40% of the global road transport sector’s greenhouse gas emissions.

This is equivalent to about 5.1% of all CO2 emissions from fossil fuels globally. Replacing fossil fuels for trucks is imperative if we are to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

There are two major trends that will mark the energy transition of heavy-duty road transport towards zero emissions:

  1. Increasing efficiency throughout the supply chain.
  2. Clean energy source alternatives.

Increasing efficiency in the supply chain

The first trend concerns the optimisation of routes, interconnection points and, in general, the entire supply chain.

These solutions share the use of artificial intelligence and Big Data to accelerate application creation processes. Solutions to optimise routes, track and trace, and manage vehicle fleets also use the Internet of Things (IoT), with smart devices installed in trucks, containers and logistics centres.

New energy sources

The second, much more important and decisive trend is the development of zero-emission trucks, and encompasses:

Electric power

One of the most notable developments in the field of sustainable mobility for trucks is electrification. Electric trucks have gained ground in recent years, backed by advances in battery technology and increased environmental awareness. In Spain, well-known companies are investing in electric truck fleets with the aim of reducing the carbon footprint of freight transport.

Lithium-ion batteries, known for their energy storage capacity and durability, are at the heart of these electric trucks. Although electric vehicles are still more expensive than diesel-powered vehicles, the gap is steadily narrowing. From 2025, the total cost of owning and operating a battery electric truck for urban use will be lower than that of a diesel-fuelled truck. By that date, all types of urban uses will be covered by electric trucks.

In addition, the charging infrastructure is undergoing rapid development to support the transition to heavy electric vehicles. Motorways and service areas are implementing ultra-fast charging stations, allowing drivers to recharge their trucks in a short time.

Hydrogen

Hydrogen truck

Another alternative on the rise is hydrogen propulsion. Hydrogen trucks are gaining ground due to their ability to offer extended range without compromising cargo capacity. In Spain, several pilot projects are assessing the viability of this technology on long-distance routes and sensitive freight transports.

Hydrogen fuel cells are the most advanced technology available today. They convert hydrogen and oxygen into the electrical energy needed to propel the vehicle. This approach offers a significant advantage: they emit only water vapour and no polluting gases, which contributes significantly to improving air quality and reducing air pollution.

Their longer range (twice as long as electric batteries) and shorter refuelling time (up to 15 times faster than electric recharging) offer much more room for manoeuvre for planned transport such as collective passenger and freight transport. For fleets, it is not necessary to install a large number of hydrogenerators, but only in strategic locations.

An alternative use of hydrogen is in combustion engines, which can use a less pure form and require less cooling. However, a drawback is that these systems emit a small amount of NOx (nitrogen oxides), making them unlikely to be used in cities, and consume slightly more hydrogen than fuel cells.

Gas

Gas truck

Natural gas seems to be the simplest and already developed way to take, at least, the first step. The advantage of this fuel is that in its LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) version, it allows a more than acceptable range. This solution would be used by road trucks, while urban vehicles would opt for CNG (Compressed Natural Gas).

In fact, the European Union considers LNG as an alternative fuel to diesel for trucks. Its massive use would reduce CO2, NOx and particulate emissions drastically.

Despite this, the zero emissions target (in the whole process, including manufacturing) for 2050 means that not all heavy-duty vehicle manufacturers are opting for this solution.

Biofuels and Synthetic Fuels

On the road to sustainability, biofuels and synthetic fuels are also playing a crucial role in the transformation of the freight transport sector. In Spain, the industry is exploring the production and use of biofuels derived from renewable sources, such as vegetable oils and organic waste.

Synthetic fuels, obtained by electrolysis of water to produce hydrogen and its combination with captured carbon dioxide, represent another alternative to be studied. This technology not only allows renewable sources to be harnessed for their production, but can also be used in existing internal combustion engines, facilitating a smoother transition to more sustainable options.

Challenges and opportunities for the transition

As environmental awareness grows and technologies advance, these new energy sources are expected to play an increasingly important role in shaping the future of freight transport in Spain.

Despite significant advances, the transition to new energy sources in trucks is not without its challenges. Charging infrastructure, vehicle autonomy and upfront costs are obstacles that need to be addressed to ensure widespread adoption.

In this context, the role of government policies is critical. Tax incentives and subsidies for the purchase of more sustainable trucks, as well as investment in the expansion of freight infrastructure, are essential measures to pave the way towards a cleaner and more efficient freight transport fleet.

In addition, innovation and collaboration between industry and research are key to overcoming the challenges and seizing the opportunities that this transition to sustainability presents for society and the environment.