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Clean transport: Reducing carbon emissions on our roads

October 25, 2021

By Wicus Postma

Many cities are looking to cut back on emissions by reevaluating their fleet vehicle infrastructure. But how?

The race to reduce global greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions is heating up. Whether we’re talking about power production, manufacturing, or agriculture, every sector is looking for ways to promote sustainability and reduce carbon emissions.

The same is true with the transportation sector. In fact, transportation accounts for about 29% of all GHG emissions in the US. That’s more than any other industry. Just think about all the heavy-duty trucks, buses, and personal vehicles on our roads. Then factor in all the planes in the sky and ships in the sea. A lot, right? It makes it easier to see where the almost two billion metric tons of carbon dioxide comes from in the transportation sector. 

As governments at the federal, state, and local levels look to cut back on their carbon emissions, they have their eyes pinned on transportation. More specifically, they are looking at ways they can transform their fleet vehicle infrastructure to be less carbon intensive. This can be a tall order as fleet vehicles can include work trucks, public buses, school buses, heavy-duty machinery, and more.

So, how can we work to reduce the carbon intensity of fleet vehicle infrastructure in our cities? It all starts with a robust research and preparation process. 

The transportation sector accounts for about 29% of all GHG emissions in the US. That’s more than any other industry.

One size does not fit all

Before you can implement a strategy to reduce the carbon emissions of fleet vehicle infrastructure, you need to have a thorough understanding of all available options. It’s critical that decision-makers realize that a cookie-cutter approach will likely not work here. Just because you see something work in one city, doesn’t mean that it will work in another.

There are several factors that come into play when determining a path forward, including:

  • Size of the city
  • Needs of the city
  • Capabilities of the city
  • Geography of the city
  • Economics of the program
  • Market trends and availability of vehicles and fueling equipment

Once you have all available information, you can begin to review possible solutions. There are a few different approaches to reducing the carbon intensity of fleet vehicle infrastructure. From electric vehicles to biogas to hydrogen, innovation and green technologies can provide decision-makers with options to reduce carbon emissions on our roads. Let’s look at some examples below. 

By transitioning towards electric vehicles or alternative fuels like biogas and hydrogen, the transportation sector can reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale.

Transitioning to electric vehicles

One of the most prominent ways to reduce carbon emissions is by eliminating carbon from the equation all together. How? By transitioning from the combustible engine to electric vehicles. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “over 90 percent of the fuel used for transportation is petroleum based, which includes primarily gasoline and diesel.” If the transportation industry hopes to reduce overall emissions, that number will need to drop drastically in the years ahead.

There are a couple of key approaches here, and the selection is likely determined by the factors listed above. The first is transitioning to hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs). HEVs run off both a combustible engine as well as electric power. This model provides flexibility in operation, using battery power whenever its possible and combustible fuels when it’s not. The second is transitioning to battery electric vehicles (BEVs). BEVs run solely on electric power and thus lack the capability to operate without access to a charging station.

While both HEVs and BEVs reduce the amount of fuel being burned in combustible engines, it is important to understand where the electricity that powers them comes from. Is it from a coal-fired power plant? Or is it coming from renewable energy sources like hydroelectric power? This will factor into decision-making as upstream emissions—or emissions related to energy production—factor into overall carbon emissions.

Other important things to consider when transitioning to electric vehicles include grid reliability and charging infrastructure. Before making the switch to electric vehicles, you need to ensure that your electrical grid can support it. You also need to make sure that you have the charging infrastructure to handle the load of charging many vehicles simultaneously. 

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Southern California’s Marengo Charging Plaza.

Adding biogas to the equation

While leveraging electric vehicles is an attractive option for reducing the carbon intensity of fleet vehicles, it’s not the only way to do so. Another approach to reduce emissions is by transitioning to cleaner fuels like biogas or biodiesel.

Biogas is a combination of gases that is produced when organic matter breaks down in a closed system without the presence of oxygen. It can be created from things like municipal waste, residuals captured from wastewater, and agricultural waste from farming operations. Biogas can be used to generate electricity—perhaps for charging stations. But it can also be further refined and upgraded to produce pure biomethane—or renewable natural gas (RNG). This RNG can be used as fuel for fleet vehicles such as biogas buses.

Biogas can help our communities in a couple of important ways. Yes, it can supplement our energy supply in a more sustainable way. But it’s also about reducing waste and getting the most value out of our resources. Rather than heading to the landfill, organic waste can be processed for energy. This helps to alleviate the global landfill crisis as we are running out of space to dispose of our garbage. It also helps us realize the benefits of maximizing water resource recovery. By recovering more organic matter from our wastewater, we can produce more biogas and release cleaner water back into the environment.  

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One approach to reducing emissions is by transitioning to cleaner fuels like biogas.

Blending hydrogen into our energy infrastructure

Another way that we can reduce the carbon intensity of fleet vehicles is by blending fuels with hydrogen.

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. Luckily, it also has several attributes that enable it to be an effective energy carrier. It is non-toxic, light, reactive, and does not emit any carbon dioxide upon combustion. By blending hydrogen with fuels associated with the transportation industry, we can reduce carbon emissions on a large scale.

Traditionally, little attention has been paid to hydrogen. But that is changing quickly as the industry moves towards net zero by 2050. And as hydrogen technology improves and the associated costs begin to drop, we should see the adoption of it continue to increase. To put hydrogen growth in perspective: 3,000 megawatts (MW) of hydrogen production was planned in 2019, and that number rose to 8,000MW in 2020 (as per the 2020 Global Gas Report provided by the International Gas Union).

As communities look to reduce the carbon intensity of fleet vehicles, they should be considering hydrogen. And it’s not just vehicles—hydrogen can be used to power homes as well!

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As communities look to reduce the carbon intensity of fleet vehicles, they should be considering hydrogen.

Clean transport: A crucial piece of the climate puzzle

As we said earlier, every industry has a role to play in combatting the effects of climate change. And as you can see, the transportation sector will need to play a big part.

We will not be able to build our way to a clean future overnight. But there are steps we can take now reduce emissions and promote a more sustainable future. By transitioning towards electric vehicles or alternative fuels like biogas and hydrogen, the transportation sector can reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale.

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  • Wicus Postma

    Wicus specializes in conceptual design and project management and leads our Energy and Resources practice. He focuses on lean manufacturing and collaborative team building.

    Contact Wicus
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