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Germany | Electric road freight

German e highway uckermark

Not content with meeting minimum European Union (EU) requirements for cutting carbon, Germany wants to do the most it can. By 2050 it plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 95% against 1990 levels.

In comparison, the UK has pledged just 80% cuts in the same period — assuming EU principles hold true in a post-Brexit world.

Add to that last year’s Paris Climate Conference commitment and Germany’s ambition inflates.

“Last December’s climate agreement altered the course of our climate policies significantly, although governments sometimes don’t really fully understand that yet,” says Maria Krautzberger, president of German Federal Environment Agency, Umwelt Bundesamt.


German e highway uckermark

German e highway uckermark

Germany is trialling electrically powered freight lanes for motorways

The Agency comprehends the complexity of the challenge. From the start, it knows where the battle against greenhouse gases needs to be fought. “Since some emissions from industrial and agricultural activities cannot be mitigated, other sectors, including especially the transport sector, must therefore reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 100%,” she explains. “In other words, by the middle of this century – and that’s not really far away – cars, trucks, trains, ships and even airplanes, have to run entirely carbon neutral.”

Bad emissions news

The “bad news”, according to Krautzberger is that in the past 25 years the transport sector has failed to make any inroads on emissions, while the energy and industrial sectors, among others, have succeeded in a collective 30% cut.

It is not that transport has failed to make any progress; it is just that any energy efficiency improvements have been overshadowed by an upward trend in usage. And nowhere is this more prevalent than in the freight sector.

According to the International Council on Clean Transportation, heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) represent only 4% of the on-road fleet in the EU but are responsible for 30% of on-road CO2 emissions.

Rising road freight transport

And Germany, with its freight-friendly autobahns, has the most trucks and buses over 3.5t in the EU. A business as usual scenario suggests that the use of freight transport will increase by 50% by 2050.

The ambition is certainly bold, faced with today’s reality. A plethora of measures is needed — incentives for technological innovation will need to be accompanied by urging people to avoid using road vehicles and shift transport modes, while improving fuel efficiency.

Also, as and when transport rids itself of fossil fuels, new regenerative and renewable energy sources will have to replace them.

Avoiding road vehicle use is seen as the most straightforward option — finding new ways of bringing together work, shopping and leisure could help prevent unnecessary journeys. The result would be a high degree of mobility with less traffic. But there is a conflict as, for instance, the ease of online shopping makes freight transport more and more prevalent.

Sustainable switch

Switching to more sustainable modes of transport is essential, but again, not as simple as it should be. In principle, shifting freight traffic from roads to rail and waterways could mean big wins. It certainly would reduce final energy demand dramatically, especially as rail networks are widely electrified.

Despite Germany’s renown for having an efficient railway network, interest in investing in German rail has decreased over the past few years, says Krautzberger.

“Shifting freight from road to other efficient means of transport like trains, for inland navigation is a very necessary measure, but it is not really happening right now.”

The third element is the development of fuel efficiency improvements in vehicles.

And the fourth is ensuring fossil fuel use is replaced with the use of almost CO2-free fuels.

German e highway uckermark 2 cropped

German e highway uckermark 2 cropped

Electric lorry on eHighway prototype road

Technical improvements in engines and vehicles are one way to cut energy consumption. Electric and hybrid engines and lightweight vehicle design are becoming more and more common as manufacturers seek to set themselves apart from the competition.

But a lack of competition in the freight vehicle market could throw a spanner in the works, given that five manufacturers are responsible for virtually all freight vehicle and engine manufacturing in the EU.

And given that in July, the European Commission had to impose a record fine on a cartel of HGV manufacturers which broke EU antitrust rules, there is reason to be sceptical. The Commission imposed a record fine of €E2.93bn (£2.65bn) on Volvo/Renault, Daimler, Iveco, and DAF. They had been running a 14 year agreement to share pricing information and to pass on emission compliance costs to customers. MAN, a fifth cartel member escaped a fine as a reward for exposing the collusion.

Slow gains

There is a secondary concern that technology can only delivers small and slow gains. “If we go on like this we won’t have a solution by simply making [vehicles] more energy efficient,” Krautzberger warns.

Broader electrification of road transport has so far been confined to urban areas or to vehicles that can manage the load of a battery powerful enough to drive them forward. Big trucks are the stumbling block.

That is, until now, perhaps. Germany has recently joined Sweden and the United States in trialling a revolution in the way trucks use highways. It is the railways that have paved the way for this experiment.

Recreating rail electrification

The plan? To recreate rail electrification along highways for freight transport. The eHighway project uses hybrid trucks powered by overhead cables, and it could be relatively simple to introduce, according to those behind the technology.

“It is known technology,” explains Siemens head of eHighway Hasso Georg Grünjes. “It goes back to a solution that was tested by Siemens in 1882.”

The first eHighway system on a public road opened in June 2016 and over the next two years, the 2km stretch of the E16 highway north of Stockholm will help Sweden’s Transport Administration Trafikverket and Gävleborg County understand whether the eHighway is suitable for future commercial use and further deployment. As part of its climate protection strategy, Sweden has committed to having a fossil fuel independent transport sector by 2030.

Retractable pantograph 2

Retractable pantograph 2

Trucks are equipped with pantographs to tap into the power

EHighway trucks are equipped with a retractable pantograph that draws power from overhead cables installed along the highway, producing zero local emissions. A hybrid engine ensures the trucks can also run as easily on roads without overhead lines. The pantograph can connect and disconnect with the overhead catenary at speeds of up to 90km/h.

Siemens has now turned a disused military airfield in Uckermark in northern Germany into a 2.1km long test track — another eHighway, but this time one that entirely mimics German public highway conditions.

It is a much needed scheme, as many have still to be won over. “We are wondering whether catenary hybrid trucks — the so-called eHighway – will be the future,” says Krautzberger. “We don’t know yet; it remains to be seen in the next couple of years.”

Cable supporting poles are spaced every 60m at a height of 5.15m — suitable for typical maximum truck heights of 4.5m. “An important aspect is interoperability,” Grünjes explains. “We have to make sure it’s a European standard project. We included curves that are of a standard radius of a German motorway.”

Space for substations every 2km to 3km would be needed in a real life version of the eHighway, but these offer potential benefits too, he asserts, as they could serve as charging points for cars using the highway.

Siemens hasso georg grünjes cropped

Siemens hasso georg grünjes cropped

Georg Grunjes, Siemens head of eHighway

Commercially, Siemens is happy to see competition. “We hope other competitors come along because we want to see other solutions,” says Grünjes. “It’s the same with regard to the infrastructure.

“The ambition of the German government over the last decade was to improve the railways,” adds Grünjes. “And we are not in competition with any railway. This is a necessary complement to the rail solution.”

As to the cost — once again there is a comparison with rail electrification. “In rail electrification, around 10% of the cost is the actual electrification of the rail, while the rest comes from the more complex and disruptive rail works,” suggests Grünjes. He adds that it has been suggested that for eHighways you simply cross out the latter cost altogether and are left with just the electrification cost. Although he does concede that infrastructure costs can be swayed by ground conditions and surrounding infrastructure, he asserts that there is much less disruption with eHighways.

“Here we can build with little disruption,” he says. “On the Sweden project, there was no hard shoulder, so they had to close one lane, but it takes little time, particularly when installing the wires.

“Where there is a hard shoulder we could build it without closing the motorway.”



Readers' comments (1)

  • do UK and German figures include embodied carbon and energy or items produced (and that wasted in demolition) in its reduction figures?

    or just the fuel used in transport and buildings?

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

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