Last month, Daimler Trucks and the Volvo Group finally established the hydrogen fuel cell joint venture the two companies announced last year. It promises a significant step forward in the production of electric drivelines for both companies.
Despite the pandemic, 2020 was a year marked by a number of electric commercial vehicle launches including light and heavy CVs. There are more electric CVs on the market, with more to follow this year, than ever before.
At the light end of the market, this is partly driven by the desire to end sales of new cars with internal combustion engines by 2030 in the UK. Since most vans share their drivelines with car models, they will inevitably follow. While this does not directly affect trucks, the direction of travel is the same, with truck makers working towards climate neutral and sustainable transport by 2050.
Clearly this raises big questions about electricity generation. There are some 40 million vehicles on the roads in the UK and only around 100,000 of them are electrically powered at the moment. Switching some 40 million vehicles from internal combustion engines to electric power won’t happen overnight, but it certainly raises big questions for the electricity generation and distribution sectors. How will we provide enough electricity to power motor vehicles? How much of a problem is it?
"There is definitely enough energy and the grid can cope easily. The growth in renewable energy means this is not static and smart metering will make this more efficient”, Russell Fowler, senior transport decarbonisation manager at National Grid told motortransport.co.uk.
He is even prepared to talk numbers: “The growth in wind power from the extra offshore wind farms being developed will adequately meet the future demand for electrifying transport – an extra 100 terrawatt hours from our current 300 terrawatt hours consumption. Preparations have been underway for a while, as we’ve been discussing how best we can work towards the green transport changeover with government, electricity distribution companies, who transport the energy from the grid to homes and businesses, service station operators and charge point providers for over two years."
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This may come as something of a relief. There will be a secure future for road transport without diesel in the UK. Clearly we will be heavily dependent on renewable energy to de-carbonise transport, but there are obviously issues when the wind doesn’t blow. Looking further ahead, probably on a 50-year timescale, there are other promising technologies under development.
Nuclear fusion is the process by which the sun produces energy and it has many advantages compared with nuclear fission, the way that we currently use nuclear energy to generate electricity.
Dr Nick Walkden, a senior scientist at the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) and executive officer to the chief executive explains further: “It’s zero carbon. The process that you use to produce electricity does not produce carbon as a by-product. It is 'base load', so you can turn it on and off as you need to, or you can leave it running for 24 hours a day. It’s abundant, the fuel sources that we use are readily extractable from sea water, or will be by the time that fusion comes on line. We estimate that there’s about a million years of fuel resource within sea water and if we can’t do better within a million years we probably don’t deserve to.”
Compared with fission, nuclear fusion also generates minimal amounts of the long-lived radioactive waste that is problematic with fission. “That’s the stuff that really requires tens of thousands of years of storage. We don’t have that in fusion”, says Walkden. Because of that, it would be possible to build fusion reactors in town, on the coast, in the countryside, in fact just about anywhere they would be needed and they would not be the large structures that fission reactors demand.
In the meantime, National Grid has other technologies it can call on, such as interconnectors – high voltage cables that are used to connect the electricity systems of neighbouring countries. “They allow us to trade excess power, such as renewable energy created by the sun, wind and water, between different countries,” explains Fowler. “We already have interconnectors linking us to France, Belgium and the Netherlands and each year these power five million homes with clean energy.”
National Grid is working on two more to link the UK to Norway and Denmark. By 2030, 90% of the energy imported via interconnectors will be from zero carbon sources.