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What Alternative Fuels can HGVs Use?

10 March 2023

One of the most important matters globally is sustainability. In particular, the road freight industry has been in the spotlight in the race to be greener. More than a quarter of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions result from transport, and most of this includes road transport vehicles. Regulatory changes set by the UK Government, as well as B2B and B2C customers are demanding for greener transportation, meaning the industry needs to adapt and decarbonise at a faster pace.

An alternative fuel HGV will become fundamental in helping us move towards creating eco-friendly fleets and sustainable transportation. From gas-powered lorries better suited to long-haul journeys to electric lorries that are perfect for getting in and around cities, such alternative fuel types can help reduce the environmental footprint of fleets.

In this article, we’ll explore the various types of alternative fuels that HGVs can use, as well as their benefits and the challenges that come with them.

Alternative Fuel HGV: Why?

Every day, there is more and more interest in alternative fuels for commercial vehicles due to the following:

  • Standard fuel prices increasing much faster than general inflation – this means changes in fuel type have a greater bearing on vehicle running expenses.
  • Greater awareness of how organisations contribute to global warming and air quality – corporate environmental reporting means such issues are in the spotlight more.
  • Advances in alternative fuel technologies – this has allowed alternative fuels to become OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturers) supported options for HGVs.
  • Traffic management-based restrictions – for example, the London congestion charge, and emission-based restrictions like the London low emission zone.
  • Increased availability of alternative fuels and advancements to refuelling technology – this has made the refuelling experience similar to standard fuels like petrol and diesel.

Electric and Hybrid HGV

Hybrid and electric vehicles are becoming more and more of a popular choice as a practical mode of transport for everyday use. It’s no longer unusual to see an all-electric Tesla or Nissan Leaf, or a hybrid like the Toyota Prius or Honda Insight on the roads. And the road freight industry is no stranger to this either.

A hybrid HGV would use both electricity and a conventional fuel engine – so it would be powered by diesel/petrol and an electric motor. On the other hand, an electric HGV would run solely on electric energy stored in a battery.

The benefits of electric and hybrid HGVs include the following:

  • Offers a clean drive
  • Less noise pollution
  • Improves roadside air quality
  • Lower operation costs
  • V2G (vehicle to grid) potential
  • Improved performance as they may be lighter and accelerate faster

As with anything, there are still some barriers that need to be considered when it comes to electric and hybrid lorries:

  • Batteries are not powerful enough to move HGVs effectively (upscaling adds further weight to already heavy vehicles)
  • Long-haul journeys would require several time-consuming recharging stops
  • Eventually batteries will need to be replaced which needs to be considered in the cost-benefit equation
  • Cold weather affects battery life negatively

 Electric could well be the best way forward for smaller HGVs making multiple drops and travelling fewer miles. However, at the moment, it’s not the right technology for 44 tonne lorries that need to transport goods long distances. Although, what’s promising is that we’re seeing larger battery electric vehicles emerging in the market, with the DAF CF Electric truck and Volvo FH Electric truck. So, whilst electric vehicles may not yet be a feasible option for long haul trips, these companies are making it possible for larger amounts of goods to be transported in short-haul journeys, in a way that’s less detrimental to the environment.

Our DriveWise Electric and Hybrid Workshop at Driver Hire Training covers a selection of topics regarding the choosing and running of electric or hybrid vehicles. Fleet managers can use this workshop to gain a deeper understanding, the benefits of ownership and how to drive the vehicle to maximise benefits.

If you’d like to learn more, we’ve created a guide which discusses the benefits of switching to electric and hybrid vehicles, and everything in-between.

Hydrogen HGV

Fueling lorries with hydrogen is certainly a plausible option in the long term. In fact, hydrogen has been forecast as the likely winner in the debate between hydrogen and electric lorries. Across the world, companies like Hyundai MotorDAF and Toyota have already begun the journey to fuelling HGVs with hydrogen. Plus, last year, Tevva had a breakthrough with their release of the first hydrogen fuel cell-supported HGV in the UK.

There are two ways to power a lorry with hydrogen:

  • Using a fuel cell which uses hydrogen to generate electricity to power the electric motor
  • Using hydrogen as a fuel for the combustion engine

A hydrogen HGV offers a range of benefits to make emissions-free road freight a reality for the transport and logistics industry. These include:

  • Renewable and readily available energy
  • Extended usage times
  • Fast refueling times
  • Larger storage properties so excess renewable energy can be stored
  • Fuel efficiency means the production of more energy per litre of fuel
  • Near-zero emissions 
  • Clean energy source 

 Whilst there are advantages, there are still a few challenges to address:

  • Hydrogen extraction requires a significant amount of energy to achieve
  • Requires investment of time and money to be developed to a point where it becomes a viable energy source
  • Overall cost is currently larger than other energy sources
  • Storage and transportation of hydrogen is more complicated compared to fossil fuels

Hydrogen can provide quick refueling and a relatively energy-dense powertrain to support HGVs that need to travel long distances. But the biggest barriers for hydrogen as an alternative fuel source is likely to be its poorer round-trip efficiency and the cost-efficient supply of green (renewably produced) hydrogen. Whilst the benefits of hydrogen as an alternative fuel source are evident, there are still several challenges to overcome, to be able to reap the full potential of its role in a greener future.

If you’d like to know more, we’ve written a guide that delves deeper into finding out how and why hydrogen could be a potential fuel option for lorries.

Biofuel HGV

Biofuel is an alternative fuel to petrol and diesel. It may become more popular over the next few years as manufacturers look to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by their vehicles. It’s currently popular in North and South America, as well as Scandinavia. However, it wasn’t until 2021, that it became available in the UK in large quantities, when E10 petrol (a biofuel blend) was introduced.

In standard engines, petrol or diesel is burnt to create power, however, the process generates harmful CO2 and nitrogen dioxide emissions. Instead, biofuel uses plants or natural/animal waste, and as a result produces fewer emissions.

You may have heard about bioethanol or biodiesel which are the two main types of biofuel. Ethanol – the alcohol found in drinks – can be blended with petrol since it’s not advised for it to be used on its own. On the other hand, biodiesel can power diesel engines, and generally without any modification. Biodiesel can also be combined with traditional diesel.

Using biofuel as an alternative fuel option brings a variety of benefits to make emissions-free road transport viable for the industry. These include:

  • When blended with conventional fuels, improves performance and fuel economy
  • Some are made from plants which reduces amount of CO2 in air
  • Lower cost than petrol and diesel
  • Renewable energy source
  • Should remain cheap as it’s easier to produce and plentiful
  • Improves air quality as biodiesel reduces CO2 emissions by 78.45% compared to petroleum diesel

No fuel is perfect, and there are considerations that still need to be made when it comes to biofuel:

  • Production is currently equivalent to a tiny fraction of global energy demand, meaning a huge amount of land, water and fertiliser is required
  • Land used for fuel production could also be used for crops and food
  • Oils required may come from rainforests and other endangered environments
  • Colder weather can sometimes make biofuel waxy and therefore reduce its quality

For now, biofuel is often combined with petrol or diesel, and helps to decrease emissions and increase the power created by conventional engines. However, the technology isn’t quite there yet to satisfy global demand.