Sustainable transport can’t just depend on batteries. Here’s why

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Lars Stenqvist, Chief Technology Officer, AB Volvo


  • Batteries are an ideal solution for shorter/medium-range applications (such as for buses within a city) but they are less practical for long-haul transport and heavy duty applications.
  • Hydrogen fuel technology and combustion engines can complement batteries if we invest in those innovations and solutions.
  • Industry leaders and policy makers must collaborate to shape the regulatory environment that will make sustainable transport feasible.

When we try to envision what our future world will be like, we picture cleaner, quieter, emission-free streets and transport corridors. But with a growing global population, congested cities, booming e-commerce and climate change top of the agenda, it’s clear there are significant challenges ahead. A shift to electric transport is inevitable, especially if we are to deliver on our commitments to the Paris Agreement and the EU Green Deal. Whilst the value of battery electric vehicles is widely acknowledged, a single solution response will not be sufficient to meet increased demand for sustainable transport and infrastructure solutions. Investing in innovations such as hydrogen fuel cell technology will be key.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about the transition to clean energy?

Moving to clean energy is key to combating climate change, yet in the past five years, the energy transition has stagnated.

Energy consumption and production contribute to two-thirds of global emissions, and 81% of the global energy system is still based on fossil fuels, the same percentage as 30 years ago. Plus, improvements in the energy intensity of the global economy (the amount of energy used per unit of economic activity) are slowing. In 2018 energy intensity improved by 1.2%, the slowest rate since 2010.

Effective policies, private-sector action and public-private cooperation are needed to create a more inclusive, sustainable, affordable and secure global energy system.

Benchmarking progress is essential to a successful transition. The World Economic Forum’s Energy Transition Index, which ranks 115 economies on how well they balance energy security and access with environmental sustainability and affordability, shows that the biggest challenge facing energy transition is the lack of readiness among the world’s largest emitters, including US, China, India and Russia. The 10 countries that score the highest in terms of readiness account for only 2.6% of global annual emissions.

To future-proof the global energy system, the Forum’s Shaping the Future of Energy and Materials Platform is working on initiatives including, Systemic Efficiency, Innovation and Clean Energy and the Global Battery Alliance to encourage and enable innovative energy investments, technologies and solutions.

Additionally, the Mission Possible Platform (MPP) is working to assemble public and private partners to further the industry transition to set heavy industry and mobility sectors on the pathway towards net-zero emissions. MPP is an initiative created by the World Economic Forum and the Energy Transitions Commission.

Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

Building for the future

We’ve learned many lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic, not least the importance of operating in the here and now, and at the same time transforming and building to secure a sustainable future for our planet and for future generations. Developing tomorrow’s climate-smart and competitive solutions – whilst maintaining the production of environmentally responsible transport today – requires technologies that can adapt to the needs of the whole transport and infrastructure network.

When it comes to electrification, most organizations have their foot firmly in one camp, be it battery electric or hydrogen, and the two are often portrayed as competitors. There are very few actively pushing for the development of both technologies in tandem. In fact, we at Volvo go one step further in advocating for a three-pronged approach to electrification with internal combustion engines playing an important part in sustainable solutions.

‘One-size-fits-all’ will not work

We cannot simply take a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. We know that batteries are an ideal solution for shorter/medium-range applications, such as use within the city for buses, refuse collection, local distribution and regional haulage, which regularly return to a fixed depot, thereby allowing for easy refueling. Indeed, many battery-powered vehicles are already successfully operating in towns and cities across the globe. Not only are they zero-emission, but they are also quieter.

But for heavy-duty and long-haul transport, batteries are simply too impractical. The size required to deliver sufficient driving range would make the vehicle too heavy and unwieldy. And if you aren’t returning to the depot in the evening or are operating on challenging sites without good electrical infrastructure, you might not have access to the necessary charging capabilities. This is where hydrogen fuel cells come in. Unlike batteries, which store their electricity, fuel cells make their own electricity onboard from stored hydrogen in an electrochemical process.

Fuel for the future

While hydrogen fuel is a perfect complement to battery electric vehicles, there is still a lot of work to do to harness its full potential. We’ve learned that combining expertise is the best way to accelerate the rate of development, which is why we have formed a joint venture with Daimler Truck AG called cellcentric with the aim to have fuel cell technology in production for both long-haul trucking and other applications by the second half of this decade. Together, Volvo Group and Daimler Truck AG have tremendous and longstanding experience in technology development, industrialization and large-scale vehicle production. These unique capabilities – developed over decades – aren’t typical for a startup at launch but such capabilities will be key to tackling the challenges sustainable transport presents. https://www.youtube.com/embed/cMW0vgrvzCU?enablejsapi=1&wmode=transparent

We are also teaming up with energy providers and infrastructure builders. To help shape the conditions that will make a mass-market rollout of hydrogen trucks possible, a special collaboration was launched December 2020: H2Accelerate. In this collaboration between Volvo Group, Daimler Truck AG, IVECO, OMV and Shell, participants will work with policy makers and regulators to develop the policy environment that will support the scale up of hydrogen truck manufacturing and the creation of a refuelling network through Europe.

Similar partnerships will be required to deliver on a global scale. Demand from customers around the world for cleaner products and services will continue to grow. This will gather speed as further legislation comes into force requiring industries to tackle their carbon footprints. But widespread adoption of electric vehicles will only become possible once leaders in industry and government work together to put the necessary infrastructure in place.

While we know that the absolute majority of commercial vehicles will be electric going forward – a mix between hydrogen fuel cell and battery electric – there will still be applications where we will need combustion engines, albeit ones that run on fossil free fuels, such as biogas, renewable hydrogen and many other options. This is a vital part of our three-pronged approach to decarbonizing transport and infrastructure and we feel it is just as important to advocate for combustion engines as it is to advocate for hydrogen fuel cell and battery electric.

Shifting to fossil-free vehicles and equipment will take time; the average life length of our vehicles is around 10 years. That’s why if we are to take responsibility as an organization and meet our commitment to deliver on the Paris Agreement goals, it is important to offer only fossil-free solutions from 2040 onwards.

The roadmap for electrification. Key: FC – Fuel cell; ICE – Internal combustion engine; LNG – Liquefied natural gas. Image: Volvo

The shift to zero challenge

Delivering carbon neutrality is complex and will take more than just the electrification of machines and vehicles. In part, it will require rolling out charging and tank station infrastructure to make battery electric and hydrogen fuel cells feasible. As a result, these efforts will require large-scale cooperation between public and private stakeholders to develop the necessary technology and infrastructure. This includes leaders in the energy, transport and vehicle industries, as well as transport buyers and consumers. Policymakers also have a vital role to play, drafting legislation and incentives that provide the impetus to accelerate the shift to zero-carbon solutions.

This is a golden age of opportunity for the industry. A new transport landscape is set to emerge. But to zero in only on batteries and forego hydrogen and combustion engines would be a disservice: the three should be invested in and supported in unison if we are to make sustainable transport a commercial reality.

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