Greening the haulage industry

eforce truck

Last night I was on the business and finance discussion panel on my local BBC radio station. The panel usually involves local business people of one sort or another, and yesterday included a representative from the Federation of Small Businesses and the CEO of a rather large haulage company. On learning that I write about sustainability, we had an interesting chat about the challenges of greening a trucking business.

However much we shop local and produce things locally, we’re never going to be self-sufficient in everything. Some things are going to need to be transported long distances. We can use more rail freight, but we’ll need trucks too. So how do we make haulage more sustainable?

One option is to change the fuel. Lorries and vans produce 35% of Britain’s CO2 emissions from transport, and diesel engines are the biggest contributor to air pollution. Moving to a more sustainable fuel also has the advantage of reducing a company’s vulnerability to rising oil prices. There are three alternatives to the diesel that most lorries use:

  1. Biofuels – the most obvious choice is to run lorries on biofuels, which burn cleaner and with lower emissions. Many commercial hauliers already use a certain percentage of biofuels within their mix, and that percentage is rising. Scania make trucks that will run on 100% biodiesel. Biofuels are contentious though, and some are more sutainable than others. When they use land that could otherwise have been used for food crops, that can have implications for food prices and food security. Fuels made from plants that will grow on marginal land and algae biofuels are in development, but there isn’t a straight sustainable swap yet.
  2. Gas – liquid petroleum gas (LPG) is a fossil fuel, but it burns cleaner than diesel and reduces the air pollution from haulage. It’s also cheaper than diesel and there is a fairly well-established network for refilling. There is little if any reduction in CO2 emissions between diesel and LPG however. A greener source of gas is biogas, which can be produced by anaerobic digestion. Use of biogas in road transport is growing.
  3. Electric – there are major challenges to using electric lorries, including the weight of batteries, limits to their range and charging time. It isn’t possible to create an electric articulated lorry just yet, but a Swiss company did unveil the first electric 18 ton truck last year. More promising is electric-diesel hybrids, which can improve fuel efficiency by 30%. Hybrids are already used in buses, bin lorries and other urban working vehicles, and the technology is available for haulage vehicles too.

The design of trucks also has a part to play in lowering their impact. Most lorries on Britain’s roads are the traditional ‘brick’ shape, which is not remotely aerodynamic. One study concluded that a cab that was just 80cm longer and slightly more rounded cab would lower CO2 emissions by 3-5%. A small amount, but across thousands of trucks and millions of miles travelled, not negligible. Longer cabs would also be safer and improve visibility.

Perhaps the biggest opportunity for change is the problem of empty lorries. 29% of the lorries you see on the motorways are actually empty, on their way back from making a delivery. That’s wasteful, in fuel, money, driver time and CO2 terms. Fortunately, the internet has created new possibilities for networking, and a number of companies and networks have sprung up to use this spare capacity.

Returnloads.co.uk is one of them. It’s a simple idea: hauliers register their journeys, while those needing deliveries register the goods they want moving. The website then matches them up. Some services, such as Shiply, have mobile phone apps so that drivers can find a load for the return journey from anywhere. Return loads make complete economic sense as well as being better for the environment.

Obviously the less we need to haul up and down the country the better. But there are a few ways to make road transport more sustainable.

5 Comments on “Greening the haulage industry”

  1. imarunner2012 May 7, 2014 at 5:45 pm #

    I love the idea of the “Back Haul” and have wondered for years why no one has been able to do this. Even if a truck made a short side trip off of the highway and picked up a small load for a small fee they would cover some of their expenses and a delivery would be made using fuel that would have been burned just to get an empty truck back to the depot.
    Hopefully modern technology will make this feasible.

  2. henry1941 May 7, 2014 at 9:44 pm #

    Lower speeds would reduce energy, and so would better land use planning, with the aim of putting more freight onto the railways.

    • DevonChap May 8, 2014 at 8:29 pm #

      There are limits to how much freight we can put on the railways. Leaving aside that in a small country like ours single wagon load freight is almost certainly more efficient by lorry (marshaling times and the like). Railways can be really either run a freight lines with a few passenger trains (like in America) or passenger railways with a few freight trains (like UK and Europe). The requirements for efficient operation are just so different. For example fast passenger railways have lots of short blocks for signalling which limit the length of freight trains. Long blocks mean efficiently long freight trains but not many slots so fewer and slower passenger ones.

      Since our railways are bursting with the amount of passenger traffic that wants to travel on them I can’t see us moving to a freight focused railway.

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