EV overview 2 – freight transport

The first part of this overview of Electric Vehicles looked at the progress in electrifying everything from bicycles to cars, 4WDs and tradie trucks. Now for the heavy haulage!

As vehicle size and weight increase, batteries need to get bigger to maintain similar ranges; but bigger batteries increase vehicle weight, too, as well as costing more and taking longer to recharge. At some point the combined weight and range requirements seemed to be ‘too hard’ to achieve with battery-electric power. That is where everyone thought that hydrogen power would find its niche, but the latest studies show the point being pushed out so far that the niche has probably vanished.

Delivery vans and small trucks

The Brits already have plenty of vans to choose from, with more coming this year. The first of those articles notes that,

Earlier examples were in some cases hasty conversions from combustion-engined models and frequently struggled to cover more than around 100 miles on a charge. Manufacturers have stepped up their game since, though, with closer to 200 miles now being the norm. Electric vans are still primarily aimed at the urban ‘last-mile’ delivery industry, though, as opposed to businesses doing long-distance motorway runs.

Australia’s first e-vans arrived in 2018 but we have had fewer to choose from. This year we should get the Ford Transit and (probably) the new VW Kombi, so the situation is improving.

Mobile workshops and food outlets (such as coffee vans) can take advantage of the big-battery-on-wheels aspect of EVs. Ice-cream vans, for instance, have already discovered that their quietness and absence of smelly exhaust fumes are big advantages.

Buses and heavy transport

There’s an ongoing battle between two competing technologies in the buses and heavy road freight sector – hydrogen fuel cells (using green hydrogen, we would hope) vs battery-electric vehicles. As I said above, batteries seem to be winning. One example of the shift is that the City of Montpellier has recently cancelled an order for 50 hydrogen fuel-cell buses after realizing that it would be cheaper and more efficient to order battery-electric buses instead. The fuel-cell buses had been on order for over two years but when the city updated its plan to decarbonize its public transport, it found that the cost of operation would be 0.95 euros per km for hydrogen buses compared to 0.15 euros per km for the battery-electric ones (more details here).

On the other hand, Sun Metals zinc refinery here in Townsville is trialling heavy trucks powered by hydrogen fuel cells for their refinery-to-port run.

Meanwhile, the Scandinavians are powering ahead with heavy-duty battery-electric trucks. Volvo has made concrete-mixer trucks up to 44 tons GVM and Scania has semi-trailers up to 64 tons … at which point they are butting up against size limits imposed by roads and bridges.

Back in Australia, Janus Electric is spruiking semi-trailer conversions: “Janus trucks convert existing diesel engine trucks due for a rebuild or replacement, with a new electric motor at a comparative cost to rebuild an existing diesel motor.” Interestingly, they pair this with a swappable-battery system to reduce both down-time and charging costs: “As the batteries are not permanently fixed to the truck, they can be charged anywhere, anytime, and can be charged in off-peak time slots.” (Read more on Big Rigs, April 2021, and check the links under ‘conversions’ in Part 1 of my overview for bus and van conversions.)


The same battle of technologies is apparent in rail transport.

Rio Tinto has begun trialling battery-electric trains in the Pilbara. The company hopes that by replacing its fleet of trains to run off solar-generated electricity, the company could cut the diesel-related carbon emissions from its Pilbara iron ore operations by 30 per cent. Aurizon, meanwhile, is looking into hydrogen fuel cell technology, which can also be clean and renewable, instead.

From the first of those linked articles:

Professor of Sustainability at Curtin University, Peter Newman, said this investment signalled a trend for the industry. “For many years now, I’ve been part of this discussion within the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change],” he said. “It’s really been a battle between solar electric based transport, and hydrogen fuel cell-based transport, which tends to be pushed very heavily by the gas industry. “This is now saying that electric trains, that are basically fuelled by solar, are likely to be winning.”

Almost by chance, diesel-electric trains have a unique advantage when it comes to electrification. As Cleantechnica notes,

Unlike several other regions in the world [but like Australia], all freight trains in the US are still diesel electric, largely because the typical electrification strategy of building electrified lines over tracks is harder to implement in the U.S. with its vast distances. In diesel-electric trains, a diesel engine is connected to an alternator that then supplies electricity to electric motors connected to the locomotive axles. Retrofitting the trains to be powered by batteries is therefore feasible because diesel-electric trains already have an electric motor.  …

The recent dramatic decline in battery prices has created a new possibility for electrification of freight trains. Researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), collaborating with UCLA and UC Berkeley researchers, make the case that the U.S. can retrofit diesel-electric trains with batteries in a way that is cost-competitive with diesel.

And another report on the same study notes that:

The analysis becomes very interesting when the researchers leave freight behind and start thinking about what could be done with many big, mobile batteries. Even without moving them, freight companies could use their capacity to provide grid stabilization services or sell back power when the price gets high. In extreme cases, this system could actually pay for the entire infrastructure.

… The batteries could also be moved to locations that have been struck by power outages or natural disasters, towed there by locomotives running on diesel instead of draining the batteries.


Yes, indeed. At this stage, only short-range vessels because of the limitations of battery storage but, as with trucks, larger batteries and faster chargers are coming all the time.

Passenger ferries are already in service in New Zealand, Norway, and USA, with many more to come since, as Axios says in its overview of the industry, “Passenger ferries are ideal for electric propulsion using current battery technology, which can reduce water and air pollution while providing a quiet, vibration-free trip. Short routes with frequent stops along populated shorelines offer ample opportunities to charge the battery packs.”

One of the first electric freighters will also serve a short, fixed, route – in Tokyo Bay, where its quietness, cleanliness and ability to serve as a power station in natural disasters are all valued. Somewhat ironically, its cargo is fuel oil.

A Norwegian professor of shipping has briefly considered the possibility of electrifying a bulk ore carrier ‘of around 210,000 DWT in the Port Hedland – Qingdao iron ore trade’ and concluded that, contrary to expectations, it’s already perfectly possible technically and could save the operators $7200 per day in fuel costs. As he observes, that would quickly pay for quite an expensive battery.

Infineon, in a longer and broader article, points out that most modern ships are actually diesel-electric. This, of course, opens up the same possibilities we saw with diesel-electric trains.

The sky is the limit

Aeroplanes are incredibly challenging to electrify because weight is so critical and batteries are so heavy, but it has been done – at great cost, and with limited usefulness for the foreseeable future. Here is a long list on Wikipedia with links to projects.

Airships make far more sense, as discussed here:

Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) also provided comparisons to other modes of transportation such as car and train. To get from Seattle to Vancouver, for example, the total journey by conventional airplane would take just over 3 hours of flight time and produce 53.15kg of CO2 per passenger. The same journey by car would take 2.5 hours at an environmental cost of 23.62kg of CO2 per passenger. Trains take double that time, or 5 hours, at less than a third of the carbon cost, 7.75kg of CO2 per passenger. And the Airlander 10 takes the second longest, 4 hours, but at the least carbon cost, 4.61kg of CO2 per passenger.

Airlander also cites a “significant advantage” in not having to rely on airport infrastructure. The airships can take off and land from “any reasonably flat surface,” Grundy told CNN. “That includes water.”

HAV doesn’t plan to compete with long-haul flights or routes already well-served by high-speed rail, Grundy told CNN. The focus will be to connect cities a few hundred miles apart where the carbon pollution savings will be maximized.

Why are EVs so important?

Simply because we need to decarbonise completely to stop runaway climate change, and transport has been one of the more difficult sectors to decarbonise. Transport is responsible for about one quarter of global emissions (chart), so it was a significant challenge.

In fact, the global decarbonisation strategy is to switch everything from fossil fuels to electrical power, and to produce all our electricity with renewables. It’s important to know that we can do that for transport.

5 thoughts on “EV overview 2 – freight transport”

  1. V2H, V2L and V2G are all coming and will make a huge difference to how we generate and use energy.

    We may end up thinking of EVs primarily as batteries, Mr Washington said. …
    Having a big battery that’s easily transportable can also be handy, he said. Employees could charge their cars with free electricity at work and then feed the power into their homes in the evening.
    “I have no doubt the market for residential batteries is going to decline quite heavily as they’re replaced by cars,” he said. “Why do you need a residential battery when you have three times the storage sitting in a vehicle that you’ve already purchased?”


  2. The Infinity Train:

    “The regeneration of electricity on the downhill loaded sections will remove the need for the installation of renewable energy generation and recharging infrastructure, making it a capital efficient solution for eliminating diesel and emissions from our rail operations.”
    So essentially, while details are scant at this point, it seems what’s happening here is that for one or more of Fortescue’s mining sites, the team has calculated that there’s enough downhill slope and braking opportunities in the loaded direction to charge up the battery regeneratively, and the train is so much lighter when it’s unloaded that the battery can take it all the way back to the mine and start the journey again without needing a charge.


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