With soaring diesel prices, the electrification of freight is becoming more and more necessary. Innovations in electric vehicle batteries increase the likelihood of trains going electric over the next decade, even the heaviest freight locomotives. Rising fuel prices are being seen by consumers around the world. With no end in sight, the faster deployment of more electric vehicles (EVs) and renewable energy sources is increasingly being discussed by governments, energy companies and consumers themselves. The cost of diesel is rising more and more, which means truck, train and ship operators are feeling the pressure. In May, the retail price of diesel reached $5.577 per gallon, an increase of 76% over the previous year. And the price of fuel should continue to climb.
Rising oil and gas costs are encouraging governments and companies around the world to develop renewable alternatives at a much faster rate than expected. Green energy was already gaining momentum after the COP26 climate summit last year, and now companies around the world are racing to expand competitive electric batterieshydrogen fuel cells and other innovative technologies to replace traditional fuel in years to come.
In 2021, the world’s first partially electric freight train was unveiled in Pittsburgh, showing that electrification of heavy trucks is possible. Rail freight company Wabtec worked in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University to develop the zero-emissions technology needed to run the train. There were 500 lithium-ion battery modules stacked in the center of the cars to power the train.
The current train design reduces fuel consumption by 11%, or approximately 6,200 gallons of diesel. And the next model, which should be launched within two years, will reduce consumption by around a third. Eventually, Wabtec hopes to incorporate hydrogen fuel cells into the design to make the train completely emission-free.
Only around 7% of global goods are currently moved by freight rail, with many companies opting for diesel-guzzling trucks. In the United States, the government hopes that $600 million to create a new freight rail innovation institute could help change this preference. Greater research and development into producing batteries large enough to power colossal trains could help cut costs significantly, encouraging companies to switch to rail transport.
The development of battery electric trains is more attractive than alternative electrification of railway lines in countries like the United States due to the high costs of installing catenaries (overhead wires). A 2012 study suggested installation costs could be up to $4.8 million per track milewhich makes it unattractive to investors.
This year, the transportation industry is even more ambitious about its potential for battery-electric freight trains. Union Pacific recently announced it would invest $100 million to purchase 20 battery electric trains and charging stations from Wabtec and Caterpillar’s Progress Rail, marking the biggest sale to date. The plan is to use the trains to pull railcars around freight yards in California and Nebraska, hoping to remove 8,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year.
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Automakers around the world are investing heavily to ramp up production of battery-electric cars as governments pressure companies to decarbonize. However, electric vehicles require much smaller and lighter batteries than giant freight vehicles, such as trucks and trains. Therefore, the deployment of fully battery-electric freight trains is unlikely in the short term, but could be possible in the coming decades, as several countries strive to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Some companies are looking for alternatives to batteries for their freight transportation, with many companies looking for biodiesel and synthetic fuels created from renewable energy. Additionally, some passenger train operators are looking to integrate hydrogen fuel cells in the design of trains running on green hydrogen. However, this may only be possible for light trains due to the size, weight, and cost of the fuel cells needed to pull heavier weights.
Gebhardt highlights some of the innovations being made in battery electrics, suggesting that regenerative brakes can help power train electric batteries to make them travel farther. He Explain, “We are now at 7 Mwh (batteries) and we will soon reach 8 Mwh. When we do this, we will save 30% on fuel consumption. He added, “because every time you hit the brakes, all of that recharges the batteries. That’s several megawatts of energy that goes into those batteries…The big difference between a train and a truck is that you can have a mile or two of cars behind you on a train, which are 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 tons.
With no end in sight for an end to rising diesel costs, transport operators will be racing to develop alternative technologies to fit into their vehicles for years to come. But due to the size and weight of cargo transport, this is no small feat. Nevertheless, the launch of the first partially battery-electric freight train in 2021 and the development of a larger fleet this year demonstrate the potential for freight electrification, especially with continued innovations in hydrogen fuel cells, which could improve Vehicles.
By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com
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