Is technology about to overcome the ‘too heavy to electrify’ obstacle?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Overhead catenary electric road system being tested in Sandviken, Sweden. [© Björn Nykvist / SEI]

The scientific literature remains sceptical about trucks becoming battery-operated due to the cost and weight of large battery packs. But that could change soon as costs of battery packs continues to fall, writes Björn Nykvist.

Björn Nykvist is a Research Fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute. 

The prospects for electrifying heavy vehicles are uncertain and the subject of fierce debate. On the one hand, battery-powered electric cars with long-range capacity are on the roads, and battery electric buses are already cost competitive in markets with high diesel prices, according to the International Energy Agency.

Yet, on the other hand, the scientific literature remains sceptical about trucks becoming battery operated due to the cost and weight of the large battery packs.

My recent research for the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) offers new insights that can inform this debate. The positive trends on battery technology and cost continue to increase the competitiveness for electric vehicles.

Electrification now also hold promise in the pursuit of so-called “deep decarbonisation pathways” for heavy trucks. A recent analysis of energy use and cost, and scenarios jointly developed with key freight transport stakeholders shows:

  • Light trucks and a growing share of heavy but shorter-range trucks can be electrified with batteries across a broad range of scenarios.
  • Beyond 2030, a range of electrification technologies is emerging and could contribute to cutting emissions. Options include battery electric trucks, electric road systems, and hydrogen trucks.
  • Though Swedish stakeholders expect biofuels to remain critical through 2030, the role of electrification in 2045 is now about twice as significant as was thought to be the case in forecasts undertaken just five years ago.

As electrification gains momentum, and the power sector becomes increasingly renewable, electrification of freight transport can start to play a very important role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions to help reach the goals of the Paris Agreement. Indeed, the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C show that rapid electrification of energy use is needed across sectors to achieve deep decarbonisation goals.

This provides fuel – or should we say electric current? – for arguments suggesting that we should “electrify everything”. And, it means that the electrification of transport should intensify.

EU climate laws completed as truck rules get green light

European Union negotiators hauled the first ever set of rules for heavy vehicle CO2 emissions across the line early on Tuesday morning (19 February), rounding off the current generation of climate laws.

Decarbonisation through electrification – a case for optimism

The question according to our stakeholders (vehicle manufacturers, fuel providers, logistics companies, and policy-makers) is thus not whether electrification will play a central role in transport systems of the future, but how.

We find that both battery electric trucks and the electric road systems (using overhead catenary wires as shown in the accompanying image) now spearheaded by Sweden and Germany, can be competitive with diesel trucks in the coming decade.

Hydrogen fuel cell-powered electric trucks are more expensive, but it is worth noting that the technology is now being pursued by American newcomer Nikola Motors, with Norwegian partner NEL on hydrogen production and refuelling technologies.

Moreover, hydrogen is emerging as a critical solution to decarbonise steel making. The situation ask for more analysis of synergies and dependencies across the individual parts of the new fossil-free energy and transport systems.

In this new fossil-free energy landscape, battery technology plays the central role. While the verdict is still out on the role of pure battery trucks, batteries will still be an enabling technology. Whether as a means to increase efficiency in hybrid electric vehicles, as part of a electric road systems or as a component of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to manage peak power.

In 2015, I showed that a rapid reduction in cost of battery packs used in electric vehicles had taken place.

My latest research shows that the positive trends continue for complete battery packs capable of reaching a level of slightly above 200 USD per kilowatt hour (kWh) in 2017. Can this trend continue?

Looking forward

Niels Bohr, a leading scientist of modern physics in the early 20th century, famously said “prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future”. Nevertheless, with the right tools, some near-term developments can be characterised.

My research finds a learning rate in battery pack cost of around 18%  ̶  meaning that each time the total produced historical volume of batteries (in kWh) doubles,  another 18% drop in cost occurs. Currently we see such a decline in costs almost annually.

With modest assumptions on continued growth of electric vehicle sales (reaching 60 million electric vehicles sold by 2030), the cost of battery packs can be expected to approach 100 USD/kWh within a decade. But uncertainty is high, and progress can be both slower and faster.

The analysis, for example, does not take into account any additional positive synergies that will surface as batteries penetrate applications such as stationary storage, electric buses, and electric trucks.

But all in all, the outlook is now strong enough to argue that battery electric vehicles, from light cars to heavy trucks, have a pivotal role to play in reaching climate goals.

The figure shows forecasts of battery pack costs accounting for the uncertainty in both current costs and learning rates. The three groups of coloured lines account for the uncertainty in current costs starting in 2016. Going forward through 2030 each set of coloured lines reflects uncertainty in learning rates*. [Stockholm Environment Institute]

* Detailed descriptions are available in the research paper.

Subscribe to our newsletters

Subscribe

Want to know what's going on in the EU Capitals daily? Subscribe now to our new 9am newsletter.