The future of fuel

27th July 2023


There is much debate around the fuel of the future for fleets of vehicles in various different sectors. Will it be electric or hydrogen? Members of IEMA’s Climate Change and Energy Policy steering group – Matthew Thompsett MEIMA, Natalie Bird MIEMA and Helen Sprakes PIEMA – weigh up the pros and cons of each.


We have heard people liken this to the VHS vs Betamax battle of the 1980s. However, we don’t believe it is this straightforward. It seems clear that what can be electrified, should be electrified, as this will be the most efficient way of running certain vehicles. So, the electrification of cars and vans within a fleet seems like the best option. But what of larger vehicles, what of heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) that drive long distances?

Heavy Goods Vehicles are critical to the UK economy

HGVs move goods and materials long distances around the country to keep shop shelves full and to keep the supply chains that we all rely on functioning. However, the transport sector is now the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK (27%), and 16% of those emissions come from HGVs, so decarbonising HGVs will have a big impact.

The cost and technological uncertainties are considerable barriers to decarbonisation

Transitioning an HGV fleet takes time and a huge amount of investment, so fleet turnover alongside fuel type certainty and market readiness will be a critical factor in how quickly HGV fleets decarbonise. Businesses won’t be able to transition their fleet until the risk and uncertainties are reduced to the point that the change makes economic sense.

Either hydrogen or electric HGVs could be the future

When it comes to energy storage, hydrogen has the edge over electricity. Unlike renewable energy, hydrogen can easily be stored. In theory, excess renewable energy generation can be used to make hydrogen which can then be stored at a national and/or local level for when the sun isn’t shining, and the wind isn’t blowing.

Hydrogen also has an advantage in range. Hydrogen vehicles currently have a larger range than their electric counterparts. The latest hydrogen HGV claims a range of 370 miles, while the best range for battery-operated HGVs is around 300 miles.

For refuelling, the argument is less clear cut. The time taken to refuel with hydrogen is similar to the current situation with diesel, whereas recharging a battery takes much longer. A typical BEV-Car with a battery capacity of 75 KWh will charge from low (20%) to full (90%) within six hours using a home-based charger (12 KW) but can be charged in under 20 minutes using a larger, public-based supercharger (250 KW). The same logic applies to electric HGVs where, typically, batteries would be in the region of 500 KWh meaning with home/business-based charging (43 KW) it would take in the region of 12 hours to charge or two hours using a supercharger.

For some businesses, every minute an HGV is off the road charging it is costing money

A long charge time for an electric HGV is just not cost effective, and you may need two or three electric HGVs to deliver the same service as one hydrogen HGV.

On the other hand, HGVs do spend a lot of time stationary (loading, driver rest periods etc) so there is plenty of scope for recharging if the chargers are in the right locations. Connecting to a recharging point would have to be built into the tight loading and unloading schedules.

Either way, battery HGVs will need a network of rapid chargers (+300KW) to make them effective and this is beyond the control of fleet managers.

As with any battery on the market, there are a few factors that affect the charge time: battery size, maximum available battery charge rate, charger power rating and temperature. Essentially, it really boils down to, the larger the battery - the longer the charge time. This can be adjusted down based on simple electrical principles i.e. using higher-rated charge rates and also batteries with less charge resistance.

Electric cars and vans are replacing internal combustion engines far quicker than was anticipated, but they’re smaller and lighter than HGVs. As drag and weight increases, so does the size and number of batteries required to power an HGV. Not only does this dramatically increase the cost, but also reduces the cargo which in turn diminishes income.

For many reasons, hydrogen looks as though it will come out as the winning technology, except for the fact that green hydrogen (produced using excess renewable energy) is currently in short supply.

What seems clear is that the HGV refuelling future will be very different from the “one-size-fits-all” approach we have today. The fuel we pump into our vehicles will vary depending on the type and size of the vehicle and the function it is performing.

In the interim, finding more efficient ways of using a HGV fleet should be the priority

Since early 2022, regulations have allowed the use of aerodynamic features on HGV trailers. These are flaps that are fitted on the back of trailers to reduce the vehicle’s aerodynamic drag without using up load space. A welcome legislation change, which when used with shaped double-decked trailers to increase capacity, soon starts to generate the anticipated fuel savings of 7-15%. Add to this improved driving skills to reduce braking, idling and acceleration requirements, and efficiencies are readily generated.

But what about using the HGV less in the first place? Online platforms, such as Haulage Exchange or Return Loads help fill empty HGVs on their return journeys across the country – a much more efficient use of the vehicle than travelling empty. Coupled with careful route planning, most freighting companies now favour consolidated loads i.e. collections/deliveries from multiple companies in the same location. Collaboration and communication across haulage providers therefore seems to be key to potentially reducing vehicle movement in the interim.

We’re always keen to hear how IEMA members are planning to decarbonise their fleets, and what they’re doing to reduce emissions in the interim. Please let us know if you have plans that you’d like to share in a written piece or in a webinar, or conversely if there is information and guidance that IEMA could provide to help your company reduce its emissions footprint, contact: [email protected]

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