The COVID-19 pandemic has had a worldwide impact – economic standstill, stalled goods movement and disruption of the global supply chain. Most essential goods and services are delivered via heavy-duty trucks, and today we have new appreciation of our reliance on these vehicles to keep grocery stores stocked, health care worker supplies replenished and fuel in our tanks.
This pandemic and its effect on daily life have some key fleet operators speculating whether this might be time for a reset in our approach to transportation fuels, particularly in the heavy-duty sector. The impact of reduced petroleum fuel use can be quantified by our cleaner air and reduced daily traffic congestion, making this a favorable time to consider cleaner fueling alternatives for our fleets.
Some of those alternatives exist now – and, with the right kind of market support, could step up to a greater role in the near future.
Electric vehicles have become increasingly popular in consumer markets due to the very different transportation demands those buyers have. However, in heavy-duty and fleet-based sectors, electric vehicles are just beginning to appear on the market. Most of those trucks are in the demonstration phase, but the expectation among some is that growth will come quickly if government support for purchase incentives and infrastructure is accelerated.
Still, even with government support and a regulatory push, the transition to electric freight transport is expected to be slow. Data from BloombergNEF (BNEF) estimates that slightly less than 20% of heavy commercial trucks will be electric by 2040.
Most heavy-duty trucks in hard-to-abate segments, such as commercial transport and agriculture, which have become invaluable to the well-being of millions during this black swan event, typically use diesel fuel. Yet, fossil fuels emit a substantial amount of CO2 and pollutants and will continue to for years when considering the time electrifying the sector is expected to take.
But the operators of those fleets have another option that can drastically reduce carbon emissions and be integrated into the systems and equipment already in place: renewable diesel. Pioneered and deployed in communities around the world by companies such as Neste, these advanced biofuels can be produced from 100% renewable raw materials can be switched to overnight without modifying any existing trucks or other vehicles.
One of the first steps we can take towards a cleaner, post-coronavirus world is examining what pre-virus initiatives utilizing these biofuels can be expanded. One example is the decision by the city of Oakland in 2018 to convert its entire municipal fleet – including emergency vehicles, garbage trucks, street sweepers, and off-road construction equipment – to Neste’s renewable diesel at no additional cost. As a result, Oakland’s fleet was able to cut fine particulates by 33 percent, carbon monoxide emissions by 24 percent and nitrogen oxide emissions by 9 percent, compared to the fossil diesel it was using previously.
The Red and White Fleet, a sightseeing cruise company operating in the San Francisco Bay Area, made a similar decision last year switching 100% of its diesel to the same renewable diesel fuel.
The COVID-19 virus has given the world a chance to rethink and recalibrate its approach to energy and transportation. In the U.S., this cultural shift might encourage communities to become more self-sustaining, resulting in a “circular economy” that revolves around the fuels we use to power the crucial transport services.
That can already be seen in Oakland where the city is sourcing fuel feedstocks locally, by collecting food oils, fats and greases from local restaurants and turning it into renewable diesel fuels for its municipal fleets. In the first three months, the program converted an estimated 340 metric tons of used cooking oil that would likely otherwise be wasted to power its vehicles.
What is occurring in that city is the embodiment of a circular economy, which travels from fork to fuel tank, to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels while creating an environmentally and economically sustainable ecosystem supported within individual communities.
During the pandemic, diesel has proven itself to be the lifeblood of our nation’s critical infrastructure, powering terminals and city services as well as the few industries that are experiencing growth, like grocery delivery businesses or emergency suppliers. As we recover, those services can also move past their dependence on fossil-fuels and lead the way towards a new world, where more sustainable and community-friendly ways of living become business as usual.