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Could BC Become a 100% Renewable Energy Region?: Trucking, Ships and Planes

Read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.

Back in July, in my quest to see whether British Columbia could become a 100% renewable energy region, I looked at personal transportation. This week I take on the far more challenging task of long-distance trucking, boats, ferries and planes.

Ponder this: a typical eighteen-wheeler truck has a 400-horse-power engine. It burns stored solar energy from ancient, 300-million-year-old marine organisms. If you used horses to pull that much load, you’d need 400 of them, and 400 hectares of land to keep the horses pastured.

Which is Better: Slaves, Horses or Fossil Fuels?

Alternatively, you could use 4,000 humans—and a hundred overseers with whips to keep them pulling. Maybe this is why slavery was so common before we discovered the concentrated energy of fossil fuels—the true ‘concentrated solar.’ Any particular coalmine, gas-field or oil-well might embody twenty million years of stored solar radiation, and we are exhausting it in twenty years, giving an effective solar concentration rate of fifty thousand: releasing a million years of accumulated carbon ever year.

Using this incredible supply of energy, we have been able to develop our modern world with its highly advanced science and engineering, its automated factories and its global transportation network, shipping vast quantities of stuff around the world.

Holland, with 17 million people, ships 1.6 billion tonnes of cargo a year, half by road and a third by water—all using fossil fuels. That’s a hundred tonnes (seven shipping containers) per person per year. If BC (with 4.6 million people) has a similar consumption pattern, we are shipping 460 million tonnes of cargo a year.

So the challenge of making British Columbia a 100% renewable energy region has a huge cultural dimension, as well as a fuel dimension.

How much stuff do we really need to consume?

How much stuff do we really need to consume? 20%? 50%? With our current shopping habits we are literally consuming the planet to pieces, turning GDP into Gross Depletion of the Planet.

  • How much less stuff would we need if we embraced a sharing economy, with shared vehicles, shared food gardens, and shared tools and equipment?
  • How much less raw material would we need if we made an all-out effort to convert BC’s economy into a circular economy, with zero waste, and 100% recyclability for everything we buy?
  • Could 3-D printing reduce the amount of global trade and usher in a more localized economy? In China, a company has 3-D printed an entire house using cement and construction wastes for just $5,000. The future might see the 3-D printing of furniture, office supplies, medical supplies, prosthetic limbs, machine tools, play equipment, boats, shoes—even aircraft wings, propellers and small fuselages.
  • Could we build a zero-growth economy that meets our fundamental needs, while still enabling people to increase their happiness and fulfillment?
  • Would a 4-day working week help us get there?
  • Would we consume less if we had a change to more cooperative ownership of businesses, more B Corporations, and more cooperative, values-based banking, which might be less driven to make us buy, buy, buy?
  • Or do we simply need far more affordable housing, so that people would not need to work so hard stoking the economy simply to pay the monthly rent or mortgage?

These are all important questions that we need to ponder. I am not aware of any study that looks at all these factors together. If one has been done, please let me know.

The 100% Renewable Energy Problem

So now I’ll put my BCSEA hat on and explore the technical dimension of the problem: how can we switch BC’s freight transportation from diesel and gasoline to 100% renewable energy?

Some local urban delivery could go electric right now, using electric cargo bikes. In Europe, Cycle Logistics has estimated that 51% of Europe’s city freight could be shipped by bike. For heavier loads, a Smith Newton electric truck can carry up to 12 tonnes, with a 150 kilometres range.

As soon as we move out of the city, however, we run into major challenges. There are many ways to make trucks more fuel efficient, and trucking companies can engage in load-sharing and freight-matching to reduce mileage—20% of the trucks on Germany’s roads travel empty, and maybe it’s the same here in BC. A University of Arkansas research project estimates that one-in-six trucks could be taken off the road with no loss in utility.

Can Rail Take the Freight?

Clearly, electrified railways could be a partial solution, and with less use of coal, rail capacity would be freed up. In Canada, coal accounts for 13% of rail freight traffic; in America, it is an incredible 44% of the annual tonnage. 80% of Canada’s coal is exported from Vancouver’s North Shore and Roberts Bank terminals, and from Prince Rupert, and when BC no longer exports coal there will be capacity freed up along the routes. For every destination to which rail can carry freight, however, there are dozens of destinations to which it can’t. So could we lay new electrified railway tracks alongside flat highway routes? It is really unlikely.

Alongside rail, there are three possibilities for using 100% renewable transportation energy for trucking:


Will it Be Hydrogen?

There is a strong consensus that regular cars and light trucks will be electric, but that does not apply to heavy-duty trucks. Mark Jacobson and his team at The Solutions Project at Stanford University, California have mapped out how every state in the US could achieve 100% renewable energy using sun, wind and water. They are assuming the use of hydrogen for long-distance trucking, using renewable electricity to generate the hydrogen by splitting water, which is then used in a fuel cell to generate electricity for an electric drive. (Most of today’s hydrogen is derived from natural gas, which is clearly not a renewable solution).

Using hydrogen requires three times more electricity than direct electric drive, but the technology is known, and on-site electrolysis, which is already happening in Holland, California and sixteen other states in the US would eliminate the need to ship or pipe hydrogen around the province. Every truck would need to be a fuel cell truck, however, which makes it far more complex than biofuel, which works with existing vehicles.

Blue Fuel, a BC company linked to Aeolis, one of BC’s major wind energy companies, knowing how much wind energy potential there is in the northeast of the province, has developed a partnership with Siemens Canada to create the world’s largest hydrogen electrolysis infrastructure on 400 hectares of land near Chetwynd, with a view to producing green hydrogen.

Will it happen? Many people have written off hydrogen because they think about cars, not trucks, and the car of the future is clearly electric. Joe Romm, who is extremely knowledgeable on practical responses to climate change, says Tesla Trumps Toyota—but for trucking, hydrogen may yet be the answer.

Will It Be Biofuel?

First generation biofuel, such as ethanol made from corn, requires the use of good farmland, and its production is so carbon intensive that it hardly reduces greenhouse gas emissions at all. Corn ethanol is seen by some as being part of the problem, not the solution.

The holy grail is second generation cellulosic biofuel made from switchgrass, corn stover (the leaves and stalk of maize crops), wood wastes, wheat straw or municipal wastes, but the reality has lagged far behind the hopes. In the US, instead of a billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol being produced by 2013, as mandated, progress has been really slow, and production was a thousand times less than required at under a million gallons.

Hopes for the production of biofuel from algae have withered, too. To make it productive, algae needs a constant stream of CO2—and if it comes from fossil fuels, via carbon capture, fossil carbon will still be released when the algae fuel is burnt. Effective progress in the algae direction is almost zero, as we learnt from Dr. John Benemann in our BCSEA Webinar in 2013.

In Finland, which has extensive forest coverage, their Roadmap to a Renewable Methane Economy envisions biomethane from municipal and forest wastes as providing 60% of the fuel for heavy road transport by 2050, the rest coming from electricity (5%), hydrogen (10%) and bio-dimethyl ether (20%). The Finnish Biogas Association estimates that there is enough available biomethane from wastes to cover 40% of total transportation needs, including 60% for trucking.

There is also another approach that may work. BioRoot Energy, based in Montana, has a technology that can make higher mixed alcohol biofuel from any kind of waste, including municipal solid waste, sewage sludge, construction debris, industrial waste, liquid waste and woody biomass waste, using a rotary kiln gasifier to convert the waste into a liquid fuel and a slag residue, yielding syngas that is then converted into a liquid fuel for use in any vehicle. Plastic wastes will release fossil carbon, but biogenic wastes will not.

Or Will It Be Direct Electric Drive?

The third possibility is that there will be sufficient advances in electric drive and battery technology to make long-distance electric trucking possible, using one of five possible recharging possibilities: plug-in ultrafast charging, battery switching, overhead charging through wires, dynamic in-motion charging from the road below, or stationary inductive charging from above.

Ultrafast charging for larger vehicles is already happening in Geneva, Switzerland, where the multinational corporation ABB is rolling out a 400 kw 15-second flash-charge at bus-stops on large capacity electric buses. In Britain, there’s a trial happening in Milton Keynes, with buses driving a 24-kilometre route that includes two 120 kw stationary recharging strips. ABB feels confident that the future of mobility is electric—but will it extend to trucks?

Battery switching is another possibility, demonstrated by Tesla to be quicker for a car than refueling at a gas station. Might a future electric truck pull into a pit-stop and switch to a new battery while the driver relaxes over coffee?

Overhead cabling seems unlikely due to the long rural distances that truckers need to drive in addition to highway travel. In Sweden,Volvo is developing a magnetic resonance system that enables a truck to charge up as it drives along the road, but widespread adoption would run into the same problem as overhead cabling—the need for universal, country-wide coverage. Trucks in BC need to get to Prince Rupert and Fort St John, as well as Hope and Nanaimo. Maybe engineers will design an electric truck of the future that can recharge through all three means: rapid ultra-charging, in-road charging and battery swap.

Which will it be?

Electric technology for long-distance trucking is the least developed, but progress in battery technology is happening far faster than progress in hydrogen or biofuels. If you hear that Tesla’s Elon Musk is investing in a trucking company, that might be a smart time to invest.

Biofuel is a complex field with various fuel pathways, some of which seem to be going nowhere while others promise progress. Its big advantage is that it can be used by the existing fleet; the downside is the slow speed of progress.

Hydrogen for fuel cell electric drive is a proven technology, but it requires the large-scale production of renewable electricity to make the hydrogen, and an entire fleet of new hydrogen trucks, such as the Tyrano, which Vision Motor Corp, based in California, is making.

It will be one of the three—but trucking is a transcontinental affair, and BC could never get there alone. There are a host of initiatives that a lively government that was committed to the cause could initiate or join. BC’s universities could push ahead on the technology; the provincial government could work with California, Oregon and Washington State in the Pacific Coast Collaborative to make renewable energy trucking a priority; we could host a major conference on the future of trucking to identify the problem and explore the solutions. It’s all better than nothing, which is the government’s current approach.

Ferries, Boats, and Ocean Shipping

The same basket of choices applies to water and air transportation. Simon Fawkes of Blue Coral Charters operates the Aerial Sea, a 42’ sailing catamaran. In July 2014 they crossed the Strait of Georgia on 2 kw of solar electric power with a team of students from York University’s Faculty of Environmental Studies. Another catamaran, the 115 ft. Planet Solar, with a massive 20 kw solar system, is currently cruising the Mediterranean at 5 knots as part of a world tour. In Bristol, England, a 12 passenger 12 kW hydrogen fuel celled boat is cruising local waters.

But what about BC Ferries, or the big contained ships? In Japan, the NYK Group is planning a futuristic container ship: the Super Eco Ship 2030 will be powered by hydrogen fuel cells, wind, and up to 9 MW of superconductive solar, and be packed full of innovations.

To make the hydrogen, it will use liquefied natural gas, since no-one has found a way to do electrolysis at sea, which needs a constant flow of renewable electricity. If there was a battery breakthrough sufficient to carry a ship across the ocean, it would not need hydrogen. One alternative might be to use a biofuel as the source for the hydrogen. As planned, the ship will achieve a 70% fall in carbon emissions.

BC Ferries, meanwhile, has just ordered three new ferries from Poland which will be designed to run on natural gas as well as diesel. No progress there.

In 2012, the Dutch consultancy group EcoFys studied the use of different biofuels for the European Maritime Safety Agency. They looked at tankers and container ships, ferries and cruise ships, and found that it was technically possible, and that there was a market. The barriers were regulatory and policy-related.

Europe has a Renewable Fuels Directive, for instance, which requires that 20% of all energy must be renewable by 2020; but it needs to apply to ship bunkering parties, as well as to energy suppliers. If a future Canadian government gathered up the political courage to bring in a similar directive, it would have a very forceful effect on development.

Flying into a Green Future on….What?

So far, most bets for future green flying are on biofuel, with many major airlines doing trials for biofuel feedstocks such as cellulosic crops, algae, camelina, jatropha, municipal solid waste, and halophytes, which can live on salt water irrigation in a desert environment. CNN reports that “since aviation biofuel was approved for use in 2011, more than 1,500 commercial flights have been powered by a blend of traditional fuel and biofuels,” and there have also been 100% biofuel flights. The Sustainable Aviation Biofuels Users Group lists a lot of famous aviation names—but is the commitment really there?

In summary, this is not an easy game. But nor were electric vehicles, ten years ago. I am totally confident that the change will happen. There are at least 193 truck manufacturers in the world, including two in Canada: Hino, whose Woodstock assembly plant makes Japanese trucks; and Paccar, based in St-Therese, Quebec, which makes Kenworth, Peterbilt and DAF trucks.

When it comes to alternative fuels, Paccar looks to biodiesel and natural gas, and Hino has developed a diesel-electric hybrid truck which leads the world. Will Hino/Toyota produce the breakthrough all-electric or all-hydrogen heavy-duty truck? Or will biofuels prevail? Only time will tell.


Photo credit: Wikipedia/Dr. Karl-Heinz Hochhaus/CC BY 3.0. Image of the PlanetSolar boat.

Editorial Notes: Certainly a hell of a lot of ifs and buts here, but an interesting roundup of this sector.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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