Head of sustainability for most operators is a relatively new job description, and Dr Nicholas Head who covers that role for XPO UK & Ireland has indeed only been doing the job for just over two years.

A glance at his CV shows he is not a dyed in the wool transport man. He has a doctorate in the circular economy (waste and materials flows) from Northampton University and one of his previous roles was co-founder of not-for-profit body the TTP Procurement Foundation, which describes itself as “transforming procurement’s ability to balance between financial and non-financial assets bringing profound social change”.

While XPO UK & Ireland’s goal is to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, a sign in the entrance to the UK head office and 350,000sq ft DC at Crick proudly proclaims the site, which is the location for both the Head Office and Central Hub, is “certified carbon neutral”.

Carbon Neutral Britain awarded Crick this status in June 2023, six months ahead of schedule, and while there were significant reductions in water consumption, waste and actual carbon emissions, the final 1,100 tonnes of annual emissions had to be offset.

“Moving forward with our sustainability goals is something our MD is passionate about, so having one of our flagship sites certified Carbon Neutral at this stage of the journey sends a clear message on intent and the commitment from our most senior team,” says Head. “XPO has also had one of our last mile operations certified Carbon Neutral, while the next phase is going for carbon neutral certification at two of our newer warehouses in Q1 of 2024 alongside planning for electrification of our van and truck fleets.”

XPO is part of the Electric Freightway consortium led by Gridserve which will see five 44-tonne electric trucks trialled from Q4 2024 and Q1 2025 under the government-funded ‘Zero emission HGV and infrastructure demonstrator’ programme (Zehid).

While XPO has not yet installed any renewable electricity generation at Crick, it has had a renewable electricity supply agreement in place since 2022 and is looking at fitting up to 1MW of solar panels later in 2024. This situation in part arises due XPOs own sites (30) being leased, meaning agreements with landlords are required.

“We are tenants at all our own network sites,” says Head. “As with many sectors, landlords have a range of first movers and followers, working on renewables deployments with the former is an easier discussion.

”Electric capacity at our own and client sites is a major factor for consideration when looking to deploy battery electric trucks and their required charging infrastructure. Renewables will assist in the early stages of this process but will only form part of the overall energy demand needed at sites, the remainder will have to come from the grid as it upgrades over the coming decades.

“Our main concern for electrification is not the vehicles per se, as the OEMs are tailoring their products to our use cases and we are seeing real progress in their vehicle and technology development,” says Head. “What we are really concerned about is getting the power into the sites and will the charging meet our operational needs.”

The 4x2 battery electric trucks will be plated at 42 tonnes with the 2-tonne derogation for zero emissions vehicles. So far, the DfT has refused to increase the maximum weight of an electric vehicle above 44 tonnes, though Head believes there might be some movement on that front from a weights and dimensions perspective.

While 6x2 battery electric tractor units are available, most current offerings are 4x2, which even at 42 tonnes are not ideal for most fleet operators. As with many 3PLs, XPO’s operations tend to favour 6x2 configuration due to the flexibility this can provide on contracts over the life of the vehicle being in service.

“Operators would probably want 6x2s and accept the smaller batteries. But this would currently impact on range until battery technology improves, which is starting to be seen,” says Head, pictured.


On a wider sustainability point, Head is concerned about the availability of the huge quantities of lithium needed for the millions of EVs - over half a million trucks in the UK alone - that could be required over the next three decades.

“That is something that gets brushed over,” he says. “Currently most lithium comes from ethically dubious supply chains with challenging political considerations. Lithium ion is a sound energy storage technology but there are also growing signs of movement away from this to other battery chemistries.”

More widely in the future technologies and policy discussion, the DfT is happy to pursue hydrogen fuel cells but remains adamant that hydrogen internal combustions engines (HICE) will not be allowed post-2035 as they are not truly zero tailpipe emissions. But Head believes this is a mistaken view.

“The whole focus on zero emissions at the tailpipe is overly constraining,” he says. “You are excluding so many different options, including interim solutions like HICE. The government still haven’t published their low carbon fuels strategy, which a lot of operators and the wider transport sector are waiting for.

“There will be a need for drop-in low carbon fuels, HVO being the obvious one, and the government is really restricting itself with this focus on zero tailpipe emissions. This seems short-sighted and overly restrictive in terms of allowing the sector to make a running start at decarbonising.”

In terms of fleet composition and uptake of alternative fuels, XPO runs 2,400 trucks in the UK and started buying Volvo LNG trucks in 2018. It now has 76 trucks using low emissions bio-LNG supplied by Gasrec and has almost 300 trucks using HVO sourced from Greenergy. Some customers are prepared to contribute to the higher cost of these reduced emissions fuels but this remains a barrier to uptake, particularly under current economic conditions.

Specifically relating to electrification, until the National Grid is providing 100% renewable or zero carbon electricity, BEVs may be zero emissions at the tailpipe but carbon emissions from generation, infrastructure deployment and transmission will negate achieving zero emissions. National Grid says it is on track to decarbonise UK electricity supply by 2035, but that goal looks ambitious given the current need to deploy more gas-fired power generation.

On the vehicle side, “the majority of emissions for battery electric sit upstream,” Head points out. “The focus on tailpipe emissions ignores this, as recently pointed out in Zemo’s lifecycle analysis study. I don’t think we will get to a completely decarbonised grid, as from a cost-benefit perspective this would seem unrealistic.

“The same goes for transport.”

With the first ban on diesel trucks under 26 tonnes GVW coming in 2035 – only 11 years and possibly two buying cycles away – Head says “these are the conversations we need to be having now from a planning and investment perspective”.

“Under the current trajectory of change it would seem logical that these policy timelines will have to adjust” he adds.

One area where Head argues the government needs to take a more realistic and proactive role is public recharging for electric trucks.

“This is a further area where we have real concerns,” he says, “and that is where government intervention could come in. Electric truck prices are likely to come down as production scales up but we don’t know what is going to happen with the price of charging, both the physical assets and the unit electricity cost when away from base.

“Government action to support this network as a national infrastructure asset could be one approach.”

Even when it comes to back-to-base charging the cost and delays in getting power supplies upgraded are a serious barrier. “One DNO [distribution network operator] told us they couldn’t connect a specific site until 2037,” Head reports. “This just isn’t going to work, and it will hamstring the whole industry.”

The government’s 2022 policy paper ‘Taking charge: the electric vehicle infrastructure strategy’ admits that the plan only covers cars and vans but says “many of the principles in this document also apply to electric buses and trucks, particularly when charging at a depot or equivalent”.

The strategy calls upon electricity network operators to: “Facilitate fast and efficient connections of EV charging infrastructure to the grid.” Clearly the DNOs need to take this on board and listen to their potential end users.

The Electric Freightway project involving XPO and led by Gridserve plans to develop a network of public electric trucks charging stations, including megawatt rapid chargers, while exploring at-depot options with 350kW fast chargers, to reinforce the early charging network development.

Like many in the road freight transport sector, Head is frustrated at the government’s persistent failure to include trucks in its vehicle electrification plans and strategies.


“The government have put £960m into the Rapid Charging Fund [for public EV fast chargers] but there is no mention of trucks, which seems like an oversight,” he says.

The limited range of electric trucks and the lack of a plan to develop fast on-the-go charging for large EVs means that the current patterns of national and regional DCs may map onto the planned roll out of grid reinforcement thus requiring operators to re-think future strategic decisions.

“We know there is a disconnect between our existing decarbonisation ambitions and what we think the technology is going to allow – which further supports an alternative fuels position for at least 15 to 20 years,” says Head. “There is considerable optimism within the sector, coupled with uncertainty on what the new technologies, battery electric or hydrogen, are going to mean for operations.

“As such, getting access to vehicles and understanding how they operate and charge in real time is a critical learning piece for all operators. Looking at the range of sectors we work across there would seem to be obvious areas to start.”

 Heads up on the hydrogen debate

The subject of hydrogen’s role in decarbonising road transport evokes strong passions on both sides of the debate. Opponents point to the low well-to-wheel efficiency (around 30%), the high cost of the fuel cells and 350 bar vehicle tanks, and the problems making enough green hydrogen from renewable sources to go around. Proponents argue that green hydrogen can be made from surplus wind and solar energy and stored for later use, while the extended range and higher payload possible with fuel cells combined with batteries and rapid refuelling make hydrogen trucks for more practical than EVs.

No matter how the hydrogen is made, vehicles powered by fuel cells are considered by the DfT to be zero emissions while hydrogen internal combustion engines (HICE) are not because of the residual tailpipe emissions they produce (the same applies to bio-methane ICE).

“I think hydrogen will definitely be in the mix,” opines Head. “It will likely be a niche area for trucks with the main use being in heavy industry. It makes sense to produce as much as you can for a large industrial cluster like Teesside using wind turbines and large electrolysers, with excess production potentially injected to a local domestic heating grid.”

Head also sees a role for small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) which could also produce hydrogen when demand for electricity is low. Nuclear power is regarded as zero carbon emissions by the UK government.

“Installing electrolysers within nuclear power generation has the potential to produce an awful lot of hydrogen,” he says. “An example of that can be seen with the discussions around putting three SMRs into a decommissioned nuclear site in Wales.”

The Welsh Government published plans in 2023 to start work on an SMR at Trawsfynydd in Snowdonia in 2027 with power produced from the early 2030s.