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the road ahead

To cut greenhouse gas emissions, we can’t keep on trucking like we have been, a UBC professor says.

“Since 2007, we’ve seen an almost 5-per-cent decrease in carbon dioxide emissions from passenger cars, but emissions from transport trucks have actually increased by nearly 14 per cent,” says Walter Merida, director of the Clean Energy Research Centre at the University of British Columbia. “That’s because Canada is a trading nation and a lot of our economy depends on the transportation of goods across very long distances.”

In British Columbia, transporting freight on the road contributes to about 13 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

The province has set a target to slash its total emissions from all sources by 80 per cent by 2050. To meet that, the trucking sector will have to cut its emissions by 64 per cent by 2040.

That means we’ll need electric pickup trucks. But we’ll also need electric big rigs – and we don’t have any yet.

Companies, including Tesla and Volvo, say they’re working on battery-powered semis. But batteries don’t make sense for long-haul transport because they’re too heavy, Merida says.

“In Canada, a truck with a full load is typically moving 25 to 30 metric tons over 600 or 700 kilometres between refuelling,” Merida says. “You can’t do that with batteries at the moment because you’re carrying the dead weight of this battery just to move the vehicle.”

One estimate suggests that a battery to power a semi over long distances would have to weigh more than 11 tons.

“Battery technology is relatively mature, so unless we have some sort of incredible breakthrough, I don’t see any big decreases in battery size,” Merida says.

So, how can we get Doritos across the country without producing CO2? With hydrogen.

Fuel for debate?

“When you have something big and heavy, you almost always end up needing a chemical fuel,” Merida says. “The fuel of choice for the space shuttle was hydrogen, not gas or electricity.”

Whether hydrogen is used in a fuel cell or burnt in an internal combustion engine, the only thing produced is water, Merida says. Plus, there’s no waiting to charge.

“You can fill up it he same way you fill up with diesel now,” Merida says.

Because of those benefits, there are at least 20,000 hydrogen fuel-cell fork lifts used in warehouses across the United States.

But there aren’t any fuel-cell transport trucks yet. Nikola, an American company, is trying to get hydrogen fuel-cell semis on the road, along with a network of stations to fuel them, by 2022. Hyundai also announced last year that it will sell 1,000 fuel-cell trucks in Switzerland.

But for now, fuel-cell vehicles are absent from most Canadian roads. We only have a handful of stations, and they’re only in British Columbia and Quebec. They were also built with light-duty vehicles in mind.

“We need more infrastructure,” Merida says. “This is where government has a role.”

We’ll need more stations, but we’ll also need more hydrogen. As critics of fuel-cell vehicles like to point out, the majority of hydrogen produced for fuel comes from natural gas.

“That’s not a real solution because you’re still producing CO2,” Merida says. “Although, you can produce it at a central location and capture the CO2.”

Hydrogen can also be produced by electrolysis – which only uses water and electricity. But, for it be zero-emissions, you’d need clean electricity, such as hydroelectricity or solar power. It’s also possible to create hydrogen using solar cells and water, Merida says.

The bottom line? Both the hydrogen and the fuel-cell technology will need to get cheaper.

“I don’t think the challenge is safety or durability or performance,” Merida says. “It’s just cost reduction.”

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