Battery electric vs. HVO vs. hydrogen fuel cell – which is most sustainable?
Battery electric vs. HVO vs. hydrogen fuel cell – which is most sustainable?
There are various types of heavy-haul transportation that claim to be sustainable, but just how sustainable one type of truck, technology or fuel might be during its use phase depends on a range of factors – such as how sustainable it is to produce the required fuel, and whether there is a feasible chance that this type of fuel can meet the overall transportation demand.
Here, we compare the three most talked about alternatives to diesel – battery electric, HVO biofuel, and hydrogen fuel cell – assessing their use phases based on three essential factors for long-term viability.
When it comes to electric freight, Einride is leading the charge, operating some of the largest fleets of battery electric heavy-haul vehicles in Europe and North America. But why does Einride focus on battery electric and not on hydrogen-powered fuel cells? Why not HVO?
When you boil it down to three key factors – overall cost-effectiveness (low total cost of ownership), scalability, and environmental sustainability – battery electric technology stands in a class of its own. And the consensus among researchers and academics supports the case for battery electric being the key to decarbonizing heavy-haul road freight on a global scale.
What is HVO?
HVO – hydrotreated vegetable oil – is a liquid fuel. More specifically, it is a biofuel, meaning it is derived from living matter, unlike fossil fuels. HVO is a diesel alternative that can be used to power HVO-ready vehicles, and it is made by hydrocracking (breaking larger molecules into smaller ones using hydrogen) or hydrogenation (the adding of hydrogen to molecules) of vegetable oil. HVO is a very different type of fuel to hydrogen, which is a gas.
Vehicles running on HVO produce tailpipe emissions, although in lower volumes compared to vehicles running on retail diesel. Some formulations comprise of HVO mixed in with other fuels such as conventional diesel. However, fuels labeled “HVO100” refer to formulations that are not blended with other fuels; they are 100% HVO.
How sustainable is HVO?
Where the HVO “comes from” – the raw material that is used to produce it – has a big impact on how environmentally sustainable it is due to the corresponding greenhouse gas emissions. For example, with rapeseed oil, the well-to-wheel GHG emissions are around 40% lower than what is emitted with diesel; with waste oil, the reduction compared to diesel is almost 70%. (It’s worth noting that most HVO comes from a mix of raw materials.)
To assess its environmental sustainability, it’s important to consider “well to wheel” emissions. In other words, the CO2e emissions associated with producing the fuel (“well”) as well as any tailpipe emissions (“wheel”).
One important consideration is that there is only a limited amount of sustainable HVO globally. That’s because in order for HVO to be sustainable, it needs to come from runoffs or waste products – biomass that wasn’t produced for the purposes of making fuel. Biomass that was produced specifically to create fuel potentially sacrifices resources that could serve other uses, such as much-needed food, timber, or carbon storage.
Even when combined with other liquid and gaseous biofuels, there isn’t nearly enough biomass to create enough sustainable fuel to meet the world’s demand for freight transportation. Estimates on biomass availability point to volumes that equate to only 5 or 6% of what Einride predicts (based on figures from the International Energy Agency) will be the global transportation demand in 2030.
If the world was to try to meet that demand, it would need to increase the production of biomass in order to increase the supply of biofuel. This simply wouldn’t be sustainable anymore. It could require deforestation or the growing of crops, which very quickly drives up the volume of “well to wheel” emissions.
What are hydrogen fuel cells?
Hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) – sometimes referred to as hydrogen vehicles – operate using a system of fuel cells. These generally generate electricity using oxygen from the atmosphere and compressed hydrogen. They produce no tailpipe emissions, emitting only water vapor and warm air as exhaust.
FCEVs can be refueled at hydrogen refueling stations, sometimes located within gas/petrol stations. Compressed hydrogen travels from the station’s storage into the vehicle’s fuel cell system via a special dispenser designed to safely handle the high-pressure gas.
What are the different types of hydrogen fuel?
There are many different types of hydrogen, and they are commonly differentiated using a system of colors.
Gray hydrogen is the most common hydrogen on the market today. It is made by reforming natural gas – a fossil fuel – but without any efforts to capture and store the carbon dioxide byproducts. Creating gray hydrogen results in a high volume of emissions.
Blue hydrogen also refers to hydrogen that’s produced from natural gas, however, it is supported by the capture and storage of carbon. While more sustainable than gray hydrogen, this still leads to greenhouse gas emissions due to the inevitable methane leaks (so-called “fugitive emissions”) from carbon capture and storage technology.
Green hydrogen describes hydrogen produced using only renewable sources to power the electrolysis. While this may be environmentally sustainable, it is equally important to assess whether it is scalable.
Is green hydrogen scalable?
Once again, as we did with HVO, we can look at the ability of this fuel – green hydrogen – being able to meet the transportation demands of countries and continents. If you took 100% of what is available in 2030 – using projected figures on probable green hydrogen supply (which also account for a scale up in technology) – and deployed all of it to the transportation sector, the amount of energy produced would meet just 5% of what Einride predicts (based on EU statistics) will be the total EU transportation demand in 2030.
There is a role for hydrogen in a decarbonized future, but in the transportation sector, its role is limited due to the amount of energy it takes to produce, store, and transport hydrogen compared to what it provides when converted into “useful” energy. Thus, the scenario of prioritizing the world’s green hydrogen for transportation is unlikely.
Green hydrogen is more likely to be prioritized for other industries in applications that are considered to be more impactful than powering fuel cell vehicles. For example, it can be used to decarbonize steel production by enabling the production of steel without the need for burning coal.
How sustainable are hydrogen-powered FCEVs?
Since they produce no tailpipe emissions, hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles do not emit greenhouse gases such as CO2 when driven. Nor do they produce air pollutants that can harm human health, such as carbon monoxide (CO) and nitrogen oxides (NOx). FCEVs can also be low in greenhouse gas emissions if they are powered by green hydrogen.
While hydrogen FCEVs may be suitable in certain niche scenarios, they fail to challenge battery electric technology when it comes to cost-effectiveness and scalability. The independent German research institute Fraunhofer says fuel cell vehicles are likely to remain uncompetitive against battery EVs.
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles bear higher lifetime costs than battery electric vehicles, and the refueling infrastructure for FCEVs is currently lacking. But even setting these factors aside, one critical factor that impacts both cost-effectiveness and scalability is the energy that is lost when you convert electricity to hydrogen and then move that energy into the fuel cell.
When it comes to the environmental sustainability of hydrogen fuel cell technology, it’s therefore important to note that green hydrogen as a fuel requires more electricity to produce, while fuel cells – where the energy goes before powering the vehicle – lack efficiency when it comes to applying the energy.
What are battery electric vehicles?
Battery electric vehicles (BEVs) are powered entirely by the electricity stored in rechargeable battery packs onboard the vehicle. They only use electric motors to generate the mechanical energy – rotational motion – which propels the vehicle forward. This means there is no internal combustion engine (ICE) and they don’t use any gasoline (petrol) or diesel.
It’s worth noting that “motor” refers to a machine that converts energy into mechanical energy. “Engine” however is more commonly used to describe machines that do what a motor does but using heat or combustion. Based on these definitions, an engine is therefore a type of motor, but a motor isn’t necessarily an engine. This is why you will most often hear people refer to “motors” with respect to battery electric vehicles, rather than “engines”.
Electric motors are highly efficient. Torque measures the force that can cause an object to rotate, and electric motors can reach their maximum torque in little or no time. Vehicles powered by diesel, gasoline or even HVO biofuel will take longer to do this, meaning the acceleration isn’t as smooth or responsive. Electric vehicles are also significantly quieter than conventional vehicles.
More specifically, battery electric vehicles have raced ahead of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as the most popular alternative to vehicles that use an internal combustion engine. Factors driving the rapid uptake of battery EVs in recent years include: advances in battery technology, increased driving range, greater availability of charging infrastructure, and strong consumer interest in fossil-free transportation.
How sustainable are battery electric vehicles?
Battery electric vehicles do not depend on fossil fuels such as oil, and since they don’t burn fossil fuels, they produce no tailpipe emissions. This means greenhouse gases such as CO2 are not emitted as a result of driving the vehicle.
No tailpipe emissions also means air pollutant emissions, which can be harmful to human health, are either drastically reduced or completely eliminated. These include carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulate matter (PM) and volatile organic compounds (VOC).
While these factors also apply to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, battery electric vehicles have the benefit of ultimately requiring less electricity compared to hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles.
One criticism of battery electric technology points to the fact that lithium is a finite resource. However, the world has enough lithium to power electric vehicles for decades into the future. A valid concern is that the rate of production needs to increase in order to keep up with demand.
Mining capacity will increase over time and new reserves will be discovered, however, it is important that raw materials are sourced in accordance with international standards to ensure long-term ecological damage is minimized. The process of extracting lithium and other battery raw materials consumes significant amounts of water and energy. Using renewable energy significantly lowers the environmental impact of these processes.
Lithium can also be recycled – the batteries are ground up so the minerals can be extracted, ideally using renewable energy. The Council of the EU has recently adopted a new regulation that strengthens sustainability rules for batteries and waste batteries.
Electric efficiency comparison: battery EV vs. hydrogen FCEV
To offer a clearer picture of the difference between hydrogen fuel cell and battery electric, Professor David Cebon – from the University of Cambridge Centre for Sustainable Road Freight Transport – gives an example in which you take 100 kWh of renewable electricity (AC) and calculate the resulting “useful transport energy” once you factor in the efficiency losses along the chain.
With the battery electric vehicle, you might expect about a 10% loss when transferring the energy via the electricity grid, meaning the vehicle receives about 90 kWh when charging at the depot. The next stage, converting to AC-DC to charge the battery, is about 85% efficient – so you have around 77 kWh at this point. That goes into the drivetrain of the battery EV, which is about 90% efficient – meaning 69 kWh reaches the wheels. “You end up losing about 30% of the energy on the way, and about 70% goes into the propulsion of the vehicle,” says Prof. Cebon.
On the other hand, if you look at the chain of efficiencies when it comes to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, you can expect a few smaller losses, such as AC-DC conversion near the point of generation (around 95% efficient), electrolysis (around 75% efficient), hydrogen compression (around 90% efficient), and hydrogen transport/transfer (around 80% efficient). But what happens to the hydrogen next is where the biggest loss is incurred: decompressing the hydrogen and putting it into a fuel cell is a process that is only around 50% efficient.
Prof. Cebon says there is no way around this loss of efficiency: “That is governed by the second law of thermodynamics which puts a limit on the efficiency of converting hydrogen to electricity – just like there’s a limit on a diesel engine of about 40%. So converting hydrogen back into energy comes at a huge penalty.”
Once the fuel cell is used to power the vehicle (around 90% efficient), the amount of energy that goes to the wheel is just 23 kWh. “You’ve thrown away 77 kWh of electricity in the process of going from electricity to hydrogen to electricity again,” says Prof. Cebon. Figures around this may vary slightly depending on a range of factors and conditions, but they all paint a similar picture: that battery electric vehicles require much less electricity to supply power to the wheel.
There is also an economic argument for why the energy-intensiveness of hydrogen production is unsustainable for long-term widespread application. “Energy efficiency and economic efficiency go hand in hand. If you use energy efficiently, you pay less in subsidies and the economy benefits,” says Prof. Cebon. “Any economy that goes hydrogen, when they don’t need to, will be wasting a lot of money in subsidies that they otherwise wouldn’t have to spend – which would be bad for the economy.”
Battery electric vehicles: the most resilient way forward
With hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric vehicles, it is possible to achieve high environmental sustainability – using green hydrogen – but it’s costly and requires much more renewable electricity to create, compared to battery electric technology.
With HVO, you have lower costs, but the environmental sustainability is significantly lower than what is achievable with battery electric. It depends on what the raw ingredient is, how much biomass is available, and the amount of tailpipe emissions it will lead to.
In both instances, scalability is a concern. There is not enough HVO to meet global transportation demand, unless it was to be produced in an unsustainable manner. And green hydrogen is costly to produce and isn’t likely to be prioritized for transportation given its low efficiency in application.
Some have expressed concern about the range of battery electric vehicles when it comes to tackling long-haul journeys. Importantly, however, battery EVs can already cater to the vast majority of use cases today. Figures from the US Department of Energy show that in 2021, 87% of US truck freight tonnage was shipped less than 400 kilometers (250 miles).
Furthermore, the range potential of battery EVs will increase over time. This, combined with the continued rollout and ramp-up of charging infrastructure, will enable greater flexibility for battery electric fleets.
When it comes to cost-effectiveness, scalability and environmental sustainability, the facts and figures point to battery electric vehicles (BEVs) as the clear winner – and the most resilient way forward. They produce no tailpipe emissions, are highly efficient, and are the only non-fossil based technology that can meet the 2030 transportation demand in Europe. Additionally, the environmental benefits of battery electric vehicles increase as renewable sources of energy become more accessible.
Why Einride deploys battery electric vehicles
Einride is at the forefront of electric freight because BEV technology presents the strongest long-term business case, compared to all other non-diesel technologies. It is also the technology favored by regulators in the US.
Battery EVs tick all the boxes when it comes to sustainability and economics; they already show clear potential for decarbonizing heavy-haul road freight on a global scale. Meanwhile, battery, charging, and EV technology are continuing to advance rapidly.
More than being an “electric freight company”, Einride is a tech company that focuses on sustainable and resilient solutions for transportation; electric freight is an enabler of that. What’s more: getting electric trucks on the road alone would not necessarily mean the company has fulfilled its mission.
For Einride to live up to that, the movement of goods must also be intelligent – in other words, the transportation should maximize the efficiency of electric freight. Not only does this result in further reductions in CO2e emissions, it also enables Einride’s shipper customers to unlock more cost-effective sustainable freight.
Electric freight is complex – digital intelligence can make it easy
Einride designs, develops and deploys technologies for freight mobility. Freight mobility refers to the intelligent movement of goods. Movement that is not only more sustainable but also more reliable: swifter, smoother and safer.
Battery electric vehicles are a central component of Einride being able to provide freight capacity as a service to its shipper customers. But BEVs are not without their challenges. They are very complex to deploy operationally due to the infrastructure requirements of electric freight – such as charging facilities and energy supply.
The good news is that Einride doesn’t only focus on electric technology alone. Rather, it is driving solutions based on digital, electric, and autonomous technology – because all three are needed to realize the true potential of intelligent movement.
Einride is gathering world-leading operational expertise when it comes to deploying fleets of electric trucks at scale. And it is providing its customers with a clear path to autonomous freight – which represents the next big leap in efficient, safe and reliable transportation.
Importantly, you can’t go electric without going digital. With intelligent operations based on Einride’s quality data and unique algorithms, you can – as just one example – have fewer vehicles in operation that are able to move the same volume of goods you had previously. This leads to further environmental benefits as well as cost savings.
Shipping with Einride is also an effective way for businesses to measurably reduce Scope 3 emissions. Many businesses based in Europe, or with a presence in Europe, will soon be required to track such emissions due to new reporting requirements.
Einride is your transformation partner
At Einride, we are constantly evaluating new technologies to assess their potential when it comes to three essential criteria. We have tested hydrogen-powered fuel cell technology and HVO100. And while they may perform well in one domain or another, it is only battery electric technology that shows remarkable promise when it comes to all three criteria: cost-effectiveness, scalability, and environmental sustainability.
Thanks to Einride’s one-stop “turnkey” solution, businesses are able to ship electric without complexity or costly overhead investments. Einride provides all the necessary infrastructure and operational resources, including electric vehicles, drivers, digital intelligence and charging infrastructure.
Einride will tailor a solution based on the shipper’s transportation needs, identifying which routes are most ready to be electrified today with the greatest savings (cost and CO2e) potential and strongest business case. The shipper can also see a long-term roadmap of how the transition will look over time.
Going electric with Einride is much more than running tests or pilots. It’s about decarbonizing transportation – swiftly and at scale – for good.