Green shift? How the trucking sector is exploring ways to power big rigs into the future

·6 min read
As automakers make electric pledges, the heavy-duty truck sector is also looking at how it might power the industry in the future. But diesel fuel, which provides the torque needed for heavy loads, isn't expected to disappear any time soon. (Shutterstock/Vitpho - image credit)
As automakers make electric pledges, the heavy-duty truck sector is also looking at how it might power the industry in the future. But diesel fuel, which provides the torque needed for heavy loads, isn't expected to disappear any time soon. (Shutterstock/Vitpho - image credit)

Large trucks brimming with freight make their way up and down the highway between Calgary and Edmonton at all hours of the day. They're part of a continental network of transport trucks carrying everything from blue jeans to steel beams.

Most of the big rigs travelling those highways run on diesel. But beginning next year, two of the trucks making that busy Alberta run will be powered by hydrogen — a pilot project that will test the technology against Canadian weather, distances and terrain.

"This is just the natural place to really start to push that envelope and to prove [the] concept," said Chris Nash, president of the Alberta Motor Transport Association, which is leading the $20 million project. "If it works here, it works anywhere."

The project is unique to Canada, but it's by no means an isolated effort.

While all kinds of businesses are looking for ways to cut carbon emissions, the heavy transport sector has been considered one of the most difficult to decarbonize, as governments worldwide take aim at net-zero by 2050. Now, work aimed at doing exactly that is ramping up.

Erin Brohman/CBC
Erin Brohman/CBC

Daimler, the world's largest maker of heavy trucks, began testing a hydrogen prototype long-haul truck this spring. Volkswagen-owned Scania, a major manufacturer of trucks and buses for heavy transport, said this year that battery electric vehicles will be the main tool to drive its shift toward sustainable transport.

Other manufacturers making waves recently include Hyundai and Nikola.

'Unclear which technologies will be a clear winner'

The industry plays a key role in the Canadian economy, with roughly 90 per cent of freight shipments hauled by truck. It is also a source of greenhouse gas emissions.

The Pembina Institute, a clean-energy think-tank, says emissions from freight trucks represent more than a third of Canada's transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions, counting both long-haul trips and the "last-mile" deliveries that bring goods to people's doors.

View Apart/Shutterstock
View Apart/Shutterstock

Pembina analyst Maddy Ewing noted in an April report that the sector is already seeing companies take a number of steps to reduce emissions — from improved driver techniques to improved aerodynamics of the vehicles.

Those actions can play a role in the near term, she said in an interview. But long term?

"To a certain extent, it is still unclear which technologies will be a clear winner," Ewing said.

"We do see big opportunities around switching from a gas-powered truck to either a battery or hydrogen fuel-cell, electric truck.

"These major shifts are required to achieve the deep decarbonization that is really needed for the sector and to make the emission cuts across the board that will allow Canada to achieve its climate-reduction targets."

Electric vehicles are getting a lot of attention these days in the consumer space — particularly with automakers, such as General Motors, making big pledges to ramp up EV production in the coming years.

WATCH | Ford Motor Co. unveils F-150 electric pickup truck:

In May, Ford Motor Co. showed off a prototype of the F-150 Lightning, an electric version of its best-selling pickup.

But things are more complicated when it comes to truck transport.

Long-haul electric trucks getting attention

Electrification is considered a good option for medium and heavy-duty vehicles that follow planned routes within a limited region. Examples are buses, garbage trucks and delivery vans.

Montreal's Lion Electric is one Canadian firm to establish itself in that space by producing medium and heavy-duty electric urban vehicles, including school buses and trucks.

But experts say the challenges look different when it comes to loading up an 18-wheeler for long trips.

Lyzaville Sale/CBC News
Lyzaville Sale/CBC News

"Batteries are heavy compared to liquid fuel — extending the truck's range with extra batteries takes away from the weight that it can haul," said a Brookings Institute report released last fall.

Another potential road bump is how long it could take to recharge batteries for an industry where the adage "time is money" is the way of business — though some experts say it's too early to judge given all of the research taking place these days.

Long-haul electric trucks powered by hydrogen fuel cells are also getting attention.

When hydrogen burns, it leaves only water behind — no carbon dioxide or other more harmful greenhouse gases. Fuel cells that generate electricity from hydrogen can be deployed in high-energy-intensity applications, such as trucking.

But how clean it is depends on its source, and most hydrogen produced today is "grey," made from natural gas using a thermal process that also creates carbon emissions. "Blue" hydrogen is also produced from natural gas but with the carbon emissions captured and stored.

"Green" hydrogen — made using renewable energy to power electrolyzers to convert water — is being backed by many governments for vehicles and energy plants but is currently considered too expensive for widespread use.

Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada
Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada

Another potential challenge for hydrogen is the network of infrastructure that would be required to support its use, such as pipelines and fuelling stations.

"The great advantage of electricity is the distribution systems already in place," said Barry Prentice, a professor in the department of supply chain management at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. "You can get electricity almost anywhere you need."

On the other hand, Prentice said, the energy density of hydrogen provides greater driving range.

The trucking industry is watching closely.

"We don't predict what's going to be — let's call it the propulsion of choice — in the future," said Geoffrey Wood, senior vice-president of policy for the Canadian Trucking Alliance.

"Diesel is king right now. But that doesn't mean it's going to continue that way into the future."

Hopes high for hydrogen, but diesel not going anywhere

Use of diesel fuel, which provides the torque needed for heavy loads, isn't expected to disappear soon. Some industry watchers predict it will be the fuel of choice for decades to come.

Still, Canada is invested in the discussion not only because of emissions targets but because it would like to be a player in whatever comes next.


For one, both the Alberta and federal governments have big plans to grow the "blue" hydrogen sector and create jobs, with transport as one potential market. The strategy has met with criticism from environmentalists, however.

"This is how we double-down on our common mission," Natural Resources Minister Seamus O'Regan said this month as the federal government announced $2.3 million in funding for a hydrogen filling station for the Alberta trucks project.

"Net-zero emissions by 2050, but also a prosperous economy that continues to create good jobs, and a low-carbon future that leaves no one behind, not energy workers nor energy-producing provinces."

The backers of the Alberta truck project, who believe hydrogen has the potential to deliver for the long-haul sector in Canada, will put the technology through its paces next year.

The Alberta Zero-Emissions Truck Electrification Collaboration project is developing two heavy-duty, 64-tonne hybrid trucks with hydrogen fuel cells. The trucks will be built in Toronto and Montreal before being shipped out to Edmonton when ready.

David Layzell, director of the Canadian Energy Systems Analysis Research (CESAR) initiative, a partner in the project, said he doesn't see the future as a competition between hydrogen and electrification. He thinks both will ultimately share the road.

"What we need to be thinking about is all the various sectors and what the transition pathway looks like to get from where we are now to a low-carbon future," he said.

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