Decarbonising supply chains requires the perfect blend of technological innovations in road transport, maximising the potential of alternative fuels. But will British business get the backing it needs to navigate the long-term shift to sustainable supply chain solutions? Carl Hanson, Group Operations Director at Wincanton, evaluates the options.

The challenge ahead

The UK has enshrined into law some of the world’s most ambitious climate change targets. The sixth carbon budget lays out a pathway to reduce emissions by 78% by 2035, compared to 1990 levels (Source: BEIS), and it is vital that British supply chains contribute to the rate of change.

As we collectively strive to achieve these targets, the Department for Transport is consulting on an intention to phase out the sale of new diesel-powered heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) by 2040. The consultation proposes a 2035 phase out date for vehicles weighing from 3.5 to 26 tonnes and 2040 for vehicles weighing more than 26 tonnes. But the DfT has stated that the phase out date could be earlier if a faster transition seems feasible. To that end, Wincanton is committed to providing net-zero supply chain solutions for all our customers by 2040. For many of our customers, we are an integral part of their business and the impact this commitment will have on transport operations and infrastructure will be profound. Looking at supply chains in the UK, 79% of all domestic freight is moved by road (source: DfT) and in 2019, HGVs were responsible for 16% of UK domestic transport greenhouse gas emissions (source: Catapult). Changing the status quo will require the adoption of innovative technologies to ensure supply chains continue to deliver the efficiencies and convenience that customers crave.

In the most simplistic terms not all trucks are the same: they are tools that come in different shapes and sizes to travel variable distances moving a variety of loads. In the UK, articulated HGVs do the bulk of the work, moving 62% of domestic freight compared to rigid HGVs which move 38% (source: Catapult). Plotting the future of fuels across Wincanton’s fleet of some 3,500 HGVs is not as simple as choosing one fuel to replace another. It requires a roadmap to navigate the route to net-zero.

Leading the way, today

The technology required to utilise alternative fuels effectively and efficiently is still in its infancy. Expectations are high for the potential of fuels such as hydrogen in long-haul operations and electricity in urban environments, but it will require years of technological evolution before such alternatives reach the productivity and maturity that efficient supply chains crave.

Wincanton is also participating in a study led by the Department for Transport and Innovate UK to assess the economic and technical potential of the UK’s first ‘eHighway’. We will provide information regarding our operations and movements along the M18 and M180 as part of the UK’s first ever study on the electrification of long-range trucks with dynamic charging, which uses overhead wires on motorways. An ‘Electric Road System’ feasibility study, led by Costain, is considering a 20-kilometre stretch of road near Scunthorpe for a possible trial of overhead charging of HGVs. This method of charging supplies battery-electric trucks with electricity from overhead catenaries via a pantograph enabling HGVs to charge dynamically.

As diesel will remain the primary option in the short-term, it is incumbent on Wincanton to use it as efficiently as possible. At Wincanton 98% of our HGV fleet has a Euro-6 engine, the cleanest technology available, which at emission standards Euro-6d and Euro-6e has proven to deliver ongoing fuel savings as well as dramatic reductions in nitrogen oxide and particulate matter.

Wincanton has blended the very latest route planning and telematics software to create our bespoke Winsight suite of technologies, which provides total visibility of fleet performance and utilisation. We will continue to use Winsight to optimise our transport network, as well as developing cross-customer collaboration to reduce empty running, to consistently reduce our use of diesel.

To that end we’re also means using technologies such as energy-efficient tyres and longer semi-trailers as well as training colleagues in driving techniques that reduce the use of fuel.

Yet, if we are to achieve our ambitious climate change targets in the long-term, government needs to make legislative change in the short-term. Extending HGV length limits in the UK would allow all HGVs to take advantage of aerodynamic aids such as nosecones and trailer tails which maximise the use of fuel.

Furthermore, we will supplement these efficiencies with increased adoption of fuels such as diesel drop-in fuels made from waste oils and fats for ‘back-to-base’ refuelling. To that end we’re working in collaboration with our customers as and where appropriate to deliver thee more sustainable fuel solutions.

Transformation will accelerate

As we navigate through this transitory period Wincanton is targeting the development of two fuel types: gas for HGVs above 26-tonnes conducting long-range trunking operations and electric for HGVs below 26-tonnes in multi-drop, urban operations.

In May Wincanton become the first net-zero premium home delivery service in the UK and this is only the beginning. We’re committed to ensuring all home deliveries benefit from all-electric delivery fleet by 2026 and the viability of battery electric powered vehicles from 3.5-tonnes to 26-tonnes promises effective commercial use in the medium-term.

With gas there are a multitude of options, including natural gas or biomethane in liquid or compressed form. Biomethane has the potential to reduce transport emissions by 70–85%. These vehicles are early in their adoption and have been held back by availability issues and refuelling infrastructure, but we are currently working collaboratively with our customers to trial gas solutions.

Hydrogen has shown promise in providing enough power for large HGVs at motorway speeds and Wincanton is one of several partners working with transport industry innovation agency Catapult to set a clear vision for its viable commercial use in the UK. However, we recognise that not all hydrogen is the same and there will be pressure on the supply of ‘green’ hydrogen (derived from non-fossil fuel sources) over ‘blue’ and ‘grey’ hydrogen (created from fossil fuel sources) as supply chains decarbonise.

As with any emerging technology, there are challenges to overcome if we are to ensure commercial viability. For example, an HGV using a hydrogen fuel cell to power an electric drive train is currently

5.5 times more expensive than a diesel-powered truck, so supply chains are unable to benefit from economies of scale at a manufacturing level.

Furthermore, if supply chains are to benefit from innovations in alternative fuel technologies and businesses are to meet the UK’s ambitious climate change targets, building infrastructure to support change is essential. With all gas alternatives, from liquid biomethane to hydrogen, there is currently little or no refuelling network in the UK to ensure nationwide continuity of fuel supply. If this absence of infrastructure persists and diesel-powered HGVs are phased out from 2035 it will put all supply chains at risk.

Long-term support

Questions also remain over the UK’s ability to generate and distribute the volume of sustainably generated electricity required to meet the demands of decarbonising the economy. As well as phasing out diesel-powered HGVs by 2040, the government is also committed to phasing out petrol and diesel-powered cars and vans by 2035 and is heavily promoting electric-vehicle ownership at a consumer level. The future demand for electricity will be unprecedented and consistency of supply will be essential for supply chains to maintain current efficiencies.

Wincanton is confident that through effective collaboration between supply chains, vehicle manufacturers, fuel providers and government these many challenges can be overcome. Net-zero supply chain solutions require an open, honest and informed dialogue between all parties focused on the need for long-term sustainability and Wincanton is committed to supporting its customers along that journey every step of the way.


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