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March 28, 2022   |   Diesel Technology Forum

Policy Insider

Carbon Control and Clean Air Progress: Apples to Oranges Comparisons Are Barriers to Progress

While emerging technologies scale up, the newest generation of advanced diesel technology and renewable biodiesel fuels need to be embraced and take on more of a role now in cutting emissions

Ask 10 people the fastest way to reduce carbon emissions and get cleaner air in most American cities and you are likely to get 10 different answers. No doubt many will recommend a switch to electric cars, while others will suggest better bus and rail service as well as more bike rentals and pedestrian friendly access. All of those make sense and have already debuted at some level in most major cities. Still others might say “get rid of diesel trucks”, “make those trucks all-electric right now”, or “we are in a disadvantaged community and only want fossil free zero emissions trucks now!”

It is not that simple.

For some, confusing the technology trends of passenger cars and commercial trucks leads to misperceptions about how to best reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) and other emissions in our cities.  

Take a popular passenger compact SUV like the 2022 Chevrolet Equinox. It weighs about 3,200 pounds (gross vehicle weight rating) with a total maximum payload of about 1,100 pounds. It is rated at 31 mpg highway and has a 15-gallon gasoline fuel tank and a posted range of about 468 miles on a single tank. Typical passenger vehicles average about 15,000 miles a year. An all-electric Equinox has been announced, but is not yet available.

Now compare that to a 2022 Volvo tractor trailer-size truck. The basic fleet-owned tractor trailer-size 18-wheeler trucks can run anywhere there is diesel fuel which means nationwide, regional, or cross-country routes and can haul about 30,000 pounds of cargo with a total gross vehicle weight of about 80,000 pounds. The annual miles for this over-the-road tractor-trailer are typically 100,000 to 120,000 a year, and they are designed to last 1 million miles or more. And with an average fuel tank size of 300 gallons of diesel, these trucks will typically go more than 1,500 miles before needing to fill up. This driving range and hauling performance underpins the efficiency of our freight delivery system. Volvo also has an all-electric version the VNR with a range of 275 miles.

While leading truck and engine manufacturers like General Motors, Volvo, Daimler, Isuzu, Cummins and others are working to develop and sell more trucks powered by electricity or hydrogen, these are not currently available with the same performance or number of choices, sizes and configurations as compared to conventional diesel trucks. With 5-10 years or more needed to reach full commercial potential, along with supporting charging infrastructure, conventional diesel-powered trucks will continue to dominate most regional and longer haul sectors of trucking for many years. 

The key factor for market success of zero emission commercial trucks is the availability of supporting charging or fueling infrastructure (in the case of hydrogen). While there are about 53,000 Level 2 and DC fast charging EV charging stations for passenger vehicles around the US, with more to come, these types of stations are not compatible technology, nor able to accommodate the physical space demands for battery electric heavy-duty commercial trucks. According to the Alternative Fuels Data Center, only 53 fueling stations exist in the entire US and Canada for hydrogen.

When these zero emissions truck models do become available, they may have zero tailpipe emissions, but their overall emissions profile will depend on the source of energy used to charge their batteries or refuel their hydrogen, whatever the case may be. In the case of electricity, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), 21% of our electricity currently comes from renewable sources (solar, wind, hydro), 37% from natural gas, 19% from nuclear and 23% from coal. Renewables are expected to make up 44% of all electric power by 2050, with 34% still coming from natural gas. Even when battery electric commercial vehicles become more mainstream by 2050, EIA projects that 33% of electricity then will still be generated by fossil fuels.

Achieving domestic and international climate goals is going to take time. Some technologies are ready now and some definitely need more time to develop. In the meantime, everyone wants to keep making progress toward our shared goals. The new generation of diesel achieves near zero emissions, is more fuel efficient, and is available now. Using low-carbon renewable biodiesel fuels adds another advantage in all diesel trucks, both new and existing, that does not require a change in infrastructure, delivering carbon reductions overnight.

No one can wave a magic wand and halt climate change today, but moving from older technology to new technology and low-carbon fuels is something that can be done today. While emerging technologies scale up, the newest generation of advanced diesel technology and renewable biodiesel fuels need to be embraced and take on more of a role now in cutting emissions. To reject them outright or deny their use is a vote for delaying cleaner air and slowing progress toward reducing GHGs.


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Allen Schaeffer
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