Will battery electric trucks end up being a ‘black eye’ on environmental benefits?

New research from the American Transportation Research Institute has revealed that battery-electric Class 8 trucks may not be as environmentally friendly as many think when considering the vehicles full life cycle.

ATRI said that although the so-called zero emissions (ZET), such as battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell powered trucks, do not directly release carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions during operation, these emissions are today emitted during the production of these fuels and the production and disposal of vehicles and their lithium-ion batteries.

Dan Murray, vice president of ATRI, said research was identified as a priority by ATRI’s research advisory board last year “because there are so many sensational headlines about the future electric vehicles,” he said. Ultimately, ATRI set out to determine the operational cost implications of ZETs for the trucking industry and the environmental benefits of trucks for society as a whole.

The report compares the full life cycle CO2 emissions of a modern diesel truck to those of a battery electric truck and a hydrogen fuel cell electric truck, from production to disposal.

“The results are really quite surprising,” Murray said. “People who view electric trucks as a sort of panacea ‘to eliminate CO2 emissions’ will probably be very, very surprised and probably disappointed.”

To determine the lifecycle emissions of each type of truck, ATRI used the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory’s GREET (Greenhouse gas, Regulated Emissions, and Energy use in Technologies) model. The GREET model is a publicly available tool that simulates the energy consumption and emissions output of various combinations of vehicles and fuels.

The report found that while diesel trucks produce more CO2 emissions during operation, diesel far outperforms battery and fuel cell electric trucks in emissions associated with vehicle production.

Internal combustion engines are by far the least polluting during the production process of a vehicle. Mining and producing the lithium-ion batteries needed for battery electric trucks increases their CO2 emissions.ATR

Producing a diesel truck produces nearly 75,000 pounds of CO2 emissions per truck. “Juxtapose that with a battery electric truck,” Murray said. “Almost 500,000 pounds of CO2 emissions, much of it related to the mining and production of the battery itself. So we have a vehicle that a lot of people in the market call ‘zero emissions’ or “zero tailpipe emissions”, and that may be true when you’re on the road, but to get on the road, the battery electric truck will produce almost six times more CO2 than a traditional truck.

Even a hydrogen fuel cell truck, Murray added, results in almost twice as much CO2 emissions during production as a traditional diesel truck.

“On the production side, if we don’t find ways to develop more sustainable and less polluting manufacturing processes, the battery electric truck will end up being a black eye, at the production level anyway. the face of the industry in terms of trying to do the right thing and trying to effect positive change in the climate,” Murray said.

[Related: Today’s very narrow paths to electric vehicles for small trucking]

The actual operation of vehicles is where battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell trucks shine over a diesel, of course. Diesel trucks produce almost double the CO2 emissions associated with operations compared to battery electricity (which produces 56.9% of the CO2 of an operating diesel) or fuel cell electricity ( which produces 53.3% of the CO2 of a diesel in operation).

“That’s where, down the road, we’re starting to see improvements” in battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell trucks, Murray added.

CO2 emissions during operationBattery electric and hydrogen fuel cell electric trucks offset their higher production CO2 emissions over their operational life cycle, with hydrogen fuel cell electric trucks being slightly cleaner than battery electric trucks.ATR

Over the operational life cycle of each truck, which for ATRI research considered 1 million miles, ATRI found that the internal combustion engine produced 3.6 million pounds of CO2 emissions. The battery electric truck produced just over 2 million pounds of CO2 emissions, and the fuel cell electric truck produced 1.9 million pounds of CO2 emissions.

Finally, when looking at emissions associated with vehicle disposal and battery recycling, diesel trucks and fuel cell electric trucks had a similar footprint. Battery electric trucks, however, produce 22 times more emissions, mostly due to the recycling of lithium-ion batteries.

All factors combined, fuel cell electric trucks have proven to be the most beneficial to the environment, with 44.6% lower CO2 emissions than a traditional diesel truck. Battery electric trucks have only seen a 30% reduction in full life cycle emissions compared to a diesel truck.

Life cycle CO2 emissionsOver the life cycle of every truck, the hydrogen fuel cell electric is the cleanest of the three. Battery electric trucks only see a 30% reduction in CO2 emissions over their life cycle.ATR

“We have a bad habit of not looking at life cycle implications,” Murray said. “We look a mile down the road and say, ‘Jeez, these EVs are awesome, aren’t they?’ And they are. It’s getting on and off the road that the real costs start to add up dramatically.

Also worth noting are alternative fuels that can be used in existing diesel engines, such as biodiesel and renewable diesel. ATRI has found that these fuels significantly reduce CO2 emissions over the life of the truck and that truck owners do not have to cover the upfront costs of a battery electric truck, which is about double what a comparable diesel costs today.

[Related: Cutting through the heavy-duty etrucks hype]

ATRI has actually discovered that using renewable diesel in a traditional diesel engine would be significantly more beneficial to the environment than any other truck except a solar-powered fuel cell electric truck. rather than batteries. Murray noted, however, that renewable diesel is not widely available in the United States today, and most of what is available here is imported.

Lifetime CO2 emissions from different energiesATRI has found that a hydrogen fuel cell electric truck harnessing wind and solar power for power will be the cleanest truck available. Surprisingly, a modern internal combustion engine using renewable diesel fuel would be the second cleanest truck even compared to a modern fuel cell electric truck, the projected emissions of a battery electric truck in 2050, and a truck modern battery electric.ATR

“The cleanest truck ever will be a hydrogen fuel cell truck that will take advantage of electricity generated by wind and solar power,” he added. “In other words, I will produce hydrogen with electricity rather than natural gas, and I will produce electricity with solar, wind and other alternative energies. Then you get a truck that’s CO2 pollution is really less than 10% compared to a diesel truck today. »

Because the cleanest truck will be hydrogen fuel cell, Murray said it’s worth considering if battery electric trucks are just a stepping stone to get to that point, “and an electric truck is it the best springboard, when a diesel engine running on renewable energy the fuel is much cleaner than an electric truck? »