The path to zero emissions is different for every fleet.  -  Graphic: HDT

The path to zero emissions is different for every fleet.

Graphic: HDT

In 2020, Walmart set a goal to achieve zero emissions across its global operations by 2040, including electrifying and zeroing out emissions from all its vehicles. But “transforming our transportation fleet is not as simple as flipping a switch,” says Fernando Cortes, Walmart senior vice president of transportation.

That’s why the company is “layering solutions,” evaluating renewable natural gas, hydrogen, and electric solutions in its yard trucks, refrigerated trailers, day-cab trucks and medium-duty delivery trucks.

“Becoming a zero-emissions company won’t be as simple as adopting electric alternatives,” Cortes says. “For some vehicle classes, the solution might look like a hydrogen-fueled yard truck moving an electric refrigerated trailer, which eventually gets transported by a natural gas-powered truck.”

Such a multi-layered approach to emissions reduction offers fleets of all types and sizes direction on developing a roadmap appropriate for their particular operations.

ZEV or Bust?

There has been tremendous interest in zero-emissions trucks in the past few years, both battery-electric and hydrogen-fuel-cell. Many factors are driving that, including regulations such as California’s Advanced Clean Truck (ACT) rule requires a growing percentage of medium- and heavy-duty trucks sold in the state to be zero-emission starting in 2025. Several other states have adopted the rule, and others are considering it. In development is a rule requiring fleets to buy them.

But regulations aren’t the only reason. Customers increasingly demand greener freight transport. For both corporations that run private fleets and for-hire carriers, sustainability has become part of their core values. Record heat waves, wildfires, floods, droughts, and severe weather are raising awareness of climate change.

Brian Antonellis worked in shop and asset management for large private fleets for 20 years. Today he’s SVP of fleet operations for Fleet Advantage, which offers leasing and truck lifecycle management solutions.

“The first reason that comes across is that their shareholders want the company to do what they can to be green, to lower their carbon footprint,” he says. “But a lot of times, [fleet managers] get large aspirational goals from their executive leadership team. And they really struggle on how they implement those at the field level.”

Making things more daunting are the multiple types of emissions reduction goals and ways to measure them.

“A lot of fleets are being overwhelmed by the different things that are being asked from them,” says Patrick Couch, SVP of technical services for clean-transportation consultancy Gladstein Neandross & Associates.

Just because they’re all under the “environmental sustainability” umbrella doesn’t mean they’re the same ask. “Reducing your carbon footprint is a different ask than transitioning to zero-emission vehicles,” he says. “And that’s different than somebody giving you a specific direction of which technology to use. The fleet is left trying to figure out how to solve all those problems simultaneously, while still doing their day job.”

There’s no one-size-fits-all plan. How do you determine the best path for your fleet?

1. Consider Your Reasons for Reducing Trucking Fleet Emissions

Start with the reasons you need to reduce emissions.

“What goals are we trying to set?” Couch says. “Are we looking at carbon reduction goals? Are we looking at zero-emission goals? Are we looking at compliance with regulations?”

For Portland, Oregon-based regional less-than-truckload carrier Titan Freight Systems, the focus was greenhouse gases. In 2010 it set a goal to cut carbon emissions by 20% in 10 years. It was driven by what competitors were doing and by its own company values.

“We saw the early signs of the ESG (environmental, social, governance) movement, and we wanted to participate,” says Keith Wilson, Titan president and CEO. “Our core value was always what we would call QSS, or quality, service and safety. So, we started calling it QSSS: quality, safety, service, and sustainability.”

Any roadmap to zero emissions must be a living document to allow for a number of uncertainties — including, at the moment, delays in delivery of battery-electric trucks. Keith Wilson (in cab) at Titan Freight Systems recently learned his Freightliner eCascadia order had been bumped from October to the first quarter of next year.  -  Photo: Titan

Any roadmap to zero emissions must be a living document to allow for a number of uncertainties — including, at the moment, delays in delivery of battery-electric trucks. Keith Wilson (in cab) at Titan Freight Systems recently learned his Freightliner eCascadia order had been bumped from October to the first quarter of next year.

Photo: Titan

A few years later, Wilson says, Oregon’s 2015 wildfires were “the canary in the coal mine.”

“Entire communities were being wiped off the face of the earth. People were dying,” Wilson says. “I loved our Southern Oregon terminal. I would fish on the way back on the Umpqua River. I would ski at Mount Ashland. But then literally the summers were filled with smoke.”

It brought a new urgency as he recognized that “climate change is affecting my business. It’s affecting my way of life and it’s affecting my teammates. So, I realized we really do have to take action.”

2. Determine Where Your Trucking Fleet’s Emissions Are Coming From

You can’t get to where you’re going unless you determine where you are first.

“We need to understand what you’re doing today so we can understand what you want to do in the future,” Antonellis says. What equipment do you use? How do you deliver? How many miles in a day? Which applications are weight-sensitive? Where do vehicles park and for how long? Are your operations in a state with regulations or incentives?

GNA’s Couch says fleets should start with what fuels and energy sources they’re purchasing and how much. From there, you can progress to a greenhouse gas inventory. This will highlight areas to focus on and help identify some relatively simple emissions-reduction opportunities. Maybe you’re wasting a lot of fuel idling and can implement idle-reduction policies and solutions. Or maybe some older vehicles could be replaced with the latest fuel-efficient models.

You’re probably wondering, do I really need to do all this math? Can’t I just start buying some natural-gas engines or pilot an EV and see how it goes? Couch says you can, but “there’s a great deal of value in understanding where the majority of your emissions are coming from, because you’re probably not going to be able to do everything all at once. When you have to communicate what you’re achieving to your customers, or to shareholders or regulators, you’re going to need to be able to characterize the reductions you are getting.”

3. Investigate Zero-Emission Truck Technology

Beyond zero-emission vehicles, there are many other ways to reduce emissions now and others that will become available in the next few years. Cummins, for example, is developing internal combustion engines designed to run on alternative fuels such as natural gas and hydrogen, and the industry is seeing a new generation of hybrids.

“It’s going to take a generation for us to electrify trucks,” says Wilson, who has slashed emissions using renewable diesel and has six battery-electric trucks on order. “Everybody thinks that we’re going to be able to do this tomorrow.”

Battery-electric trucks can be a fit for fleets in some areas and in some applications. Dependable Highway Express uses electric forklifts and yard trucks at its California facility and is starting to use electric tractors on some routes. It’s currently evaluating which medium-duty BEVs to use in delivery operations.  -  Photo: Volvo Trucks North America

Battery-electric trucks can be a fit for fleets in some areas and in some applications. Dependable Highway Express uses electric forklifts and yard trucks at its California facility and is starting to use electric tractors on some routes. It’s currently evaluating which medium-duty BEVs to use in delivery operations.

Photo: Volvo Trucks North America

Nevertheless, it’s important to learn about battery-electric and upcoming hydrogen-fuel-cell trucks and whether there may be a place in your operations they would fit.

Troy Musgrave is director of process improvement for Dependable Supply Chain Services, one of the early pilot fleets for Volvo’s VNR Electric. Some of his early research involved a visit to Penske Truck Leasing, which was one of the first companies to take delivery of Freightliner’s pre-production electric trucks. And after a year of running EVs, he says, “I can share with someone in a similar business the things I went through and things I would have done differently.”

4. Set Emission Goals for Your Trucking Fleet

Setting goals starts with identifying what type you want to set — which goes back to those “whys.”

“Are you focused on achieving a certain fraction of zero-emissions vehicles in your fleet, as you might if you are concerned about regulations like California’s Advanced Clean Fleets rule?” Couch says. “Or are you focused on GHG emissions reductions, as you might be if you are responding to customer ESG requirements?”

Goals should flow from the fleet evaluation, GHG inventory, and feasibility assessments of different strategies, he says.

Debbie Kalish, American Tire Distributors director of enterprise sustainability and ESG Initiatives, said during an ACT Expo panel, “You need to be clear on what your stakeholders are looking for. If they say GHG is important — it is.”

J.B. Hunt has already surpassed its goal to improve its overall fleet fuel mpg 3% from 2019 by 2025, said Craig Harper, chief sustainability officer, on that same panel. Its longer-term goal, also set in 2019, is to convert at least 25% of its day cab and straight truck fleet to alternative power/fuel by 2035.

Titan’s sustainability goals were driven by what larger LTL competitors were doing.

“They were setting a 20% emissions [reduction] target,” Wilson says. “And I thought, I’m an extremely motivated owner. I want to do two things, I want to lower my emissions, and I want to lower my overall operating costs. And I knew that if they can achieve it, I can not only achieve their numbers, but I can beat them.”

In evaluating your operations for opportunities to reduce emissions, look beyond the propulsion system. Walmart and Thermo King worked together for a trial of a refrigerated trailer operated on battery-electric. Standby systems already exist to plug in reefers while parked at facilities to cut emissions from idling.  -  Photo: Walmart

In evaluating your operations for opportunities to reduce emissions, look beyond the propulsion system. Walmart and Thermo King worked together for a trial of a refrigerated trailer operated on battery-electric. Standby systems already exist to plug in reefers while parked at facilities to cut emissions from idling.

Photo: Walmart

Using renewable diesel blew Titan’s 20% goal out of the water. But setting a new goal is a challenge. “We’re in that process right now, and it’s hard for us to determine what those goals are,” he says. “What are our 2025 goals? I honestly couldn’t tell you — but I will tell you, it will far exceed the 34% reduction from 2010 once we start getting those new electrics.”

Many fleets are setting goals other than a formal carbon number target. “But we have goals,” said Matt McLelland, Covenant’s vice president of sustainability and innovation, at ACT Expo. “We are working on idle reduction and plan to have a certain percentage of autonomous trucks in our fleet in the future.” And the company signed a deal with Nikola to do a demonstration program of battery-electric and fuel-cell-electric trucks.

It’s important to keep goals realistic.

“Be honest with yourself,” Antonellis says. “Be honest with what the capabilities of the technology are out there today. Put yourself in a position where you can be flexible over the next four to five years to transition to those technologies, and to embrace the ones that make sense. Don’t overreach and try to force the technology into a space that it’s not prepared for yet.”

5. Don’t Forget the Bottom Line When Exploring Emission-Reduction Goals

Ambitious emissions-reduction goals won’t matter much if a fleet can’t make money.

“Cost is often one of the biggest barriers for zero-emission technologies,” says GNA’s Couch. “In most cases, zero-emission vehicles and infrastructure are substantially more expensive than traditional vehicles.”

Amazon’s capital planning led the company to set up its own delivery service and purchase more than 50,000 tractors to populate it, said Ari Silkey, general manager of North American Surface Transportation, in an ACT Expo panel discussion.

But most fleets aren’t Amazon. That’s why there is a growing number of partners willing to absorb up-front capital expense as fleets electrify. There are leasing programs and electrification-as-a-service subscription models, and an array of incentives and grants.

Wilson says with the grants Titan is getting, he expects his soon-to-be-delivered Freightliner electric trucks to cut his equipment costs to 20% lower per year than a diesel equivalent.

“I get the best of both worlds,” he says. “I’m going to go to zero tailpipe emissions. My employees are going to love it because there’s less poisons in the workplace. But I’m also going to lower my overall total cost of ownership.”

The world of incentives and grants can be challenging. Couch notes that federal tax credits are easy — you just claim them when you file your taxes. The next level of complexity, he says, are programs available through many utilities. More complex are voucher incentive programs, which involve working closely with your dealer.

The most complex are grants for large multi-year demonstration and deployment projects. These “take substantial amounts of effort to even understand the requirements of the grant, let alone prepare the application and win it,” Couch says.

6. Measure Progress of Your Trucking Fleet’s Emission Goals

You need a way to measure emissions-reduction goals and progress, whether you’re reporting that to customers, company leadership, or regulators.

“Until we have a final solve for a zero-emissions vehicle — and I don’t think that it is going to be solely electric — we’re going to have this blended approach,” Fleet Advantage’s Antonellis says. “And you’re going to have to have reporting on that, whether it’s fossil fuel burn or electric.”

A challenge is determining what metrics to use. There’s a bewildering array of terms, such as SBD, SBT, NZT, NZE, Scope 1 and 2 emissions, “net zero,” and more. Then there’s the number-crunching.

Musgrave calls the measuring and reporting “a career in itself. You need accounting support to dredge up all these invoices and everything. It’s a tremendous amount of work.”

It’s important to measure emissions, both baseline and ongoing, to evaluate and report on your fleet’s progress.  -  Graphic: Fleet Advantage

It’s important to measure emissions, both baseline and ongoing, to evaluate and report on your fleet’s progress.

Graphic: Fleet Advantage

One of the simplest metrics he’s found uses the statistic that about 22.4 pounds of carbon dioxide is expended for every gallon of diesel burned.

“I know how many gallons I pay for every year,” Musgrave says. “We also know our mileage, so we can formulate gallons per mile and look at how much carbon we’re emitting per mile.” This metric is valuable whether he’s measuring fuel efficiency or electric vehicles.

Titan focuses on carbon intensity, which considers “well-to-wheel” emissions from the manufacture and transport of a fuel. Because the company already is using renewable diesel, electric trucks won’t immediately mean a significant reduction in its carbon intensity as defined by Oregon’s Clean Fuels program. Wilson expects that to change quickly as the state transitions to renewable energy, dropping the carbon intensity of electricity.

7. Take Your Journey to Zero-Emission Step by Step

Getting to a zero-carbon future isn’t like a Star Trek transporter. It’s more like a road trip, with many destinations along the way — and likely detours, or even newly discovered shortcuts.

“It’s not as easy as saying, ‘We’re going to switch our fleet over to low-emissions or zero-emissions vehicles,” Fleet Advantage’s Antonellis says. “It’s saying, ‘let’s understand what you’re doing today, let’s look at what the opportunities are, let’s not get solely fixated on electric. The reality is, it’s probably going to be a combination of everything going forward, from hydrogen, hydrogen fuel cells, to natural gas, and even clean diesel.”

“Becoming a zero-emissions company won’t be as simple as adopting electric alternatives.” — Fernando Cortes, Walmart

A good place to start is simply improving vehicle efficiency. The right specs and trade cycles can leverage new clean-diesel trucks to rack up serious emissions improvements, If a fleet with 10-year-old highway tractors replaces those with new trucks, Antonellis says, it would see a 28% improvement in fuel mileage. Not only does that cut fleet fuel costs, but it also cuts carbon emissions.

Even though Dependable has been piloting electric trucks and uses electric forklifts and yard trucks, Musgrave also emphasizes the importance of lowering emissions from traditional trucks. A 5- to 7-year replacement schedule means newer equipment with better emissions systems and higher fuel efficiency. He specs automatic tire inflation systems, as well as fairings and side skirts to improve aerodynamics.

“Our operations teams are always looking for route efficiencies — how can we reduce the number of trucks we send out each day by loading them better, routing them better?” he says.

Similarly, J.B. Hunt “has always looked for ways to do more work with fewer trucks,” Harper said. For example, in 2019 the company prevented nearly 3.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions from entering the atmosphere through converting truckloads to intermodal.

Fleets also are cutting emissions using alternative fuels and hybrids, such as natural gas, renewable natural gas, renewable diesel, biodiesel, and propane.

And fleets are looking ahead to zero-emission trucks. American Tire Distributors is currently using biofuels but is looking at battery-electric vehicles, Kalish said.

“And I’m excited about hydrogen, but I recognize that we still need the technology to support it as a fuel,” she said.

If it makes sense for your fleet, start with small, targeted deployments of zero-emissions trucks in applications where they can work — and where incentives are available — to get invaluable hands-on experience in your operations.

8. Build a Team to Support your Zero-Emission Fleet Goals

One of the important things to consider is people.

“My career was about picking up and delivering freight for 40 years, so it was an on-the-job learning experience,” Musgrave says. “The way I educated myself was being picked to lead this project for Dependable and Volvo LIGHTS [Low Impact Green Heavy Transport Solutions],” a three-year project that brought together 14 public and private partners in Southern California to develop a blueprint for deploying battery-electric trucks at scale.”

Couch recommends having a person or team whose job it is to learn and become fluent in the language of emissions reduction. Just accessing and analyzing the data needed for planning can be a huge initial barrier, he says. “If possible, add dedicated staff to manage sustainability efforts. If that’s not possible, lean on consultants to supplement your internal team,” he adds.

 “You need to be clear on what your stakeholders are looking for. If they say GHG is important, it is.” — Debbie Kalish, American Tire Distributors

That’s what American Tire Distributors did when it hired private consultants to assess the company’s carbon footprint and help determine where it needed to be, Kalish said.

Your team also will need to include other companies, such as the dealer, the truck maker, the utility, charging-infrastructure companies, and government agencies.

“Business has changed,” says Titan’s Wilson, who has been working closely with Daimler Truck North America, Portland General Electric, and the state Department of Environmental Quality. “It is long-lived, capital-intensive, and [there are] partnerships that you must have to move this ball forward.”

9. Plan for the Future – But be Flexible

Titan is planning for far more trucks than the six it has on order, building a nearly one-megawatt charging facility.

“We’re spending the money up front,” Wilson explains, “because I know better batteries are coming. I know dual charging ports are right around the corner. So, we’re building a charging infrastructure that’s not just going to allow me to succeed in January — it’s going to allow me to succeed in the year 2030.”

J.B. Hunt’s Harper said we’re seeing “a monumental shift away from how we’ve been moving goods for years and years. We don’t know many things right now.” While the company has piloted electric trucks, Harper said he gets “both excited and impatient wondering when the OEMs are going to let us get our hands on a new truck. Then we have to figure out range, charging, weight and all these other things. And we need costs to keep coming down. It would be easier if we knew which technology will turn out to be the best suited for our fleet.”

“A lot of fleets are being overwhelmed by the different things that are being asked from them.” — Patrick Couch, Gladstein Neandross & Associates

For J.B. Hunt, a new carbon credit program is a “way to take action now while we’re all waiting on these other technologies to come online,” Harper said.

If you’re creating a five- or 10- or 20-year emissions-reduction plan, it’s necessary to make estimates about things such as advances in BEV range, or whether renewable natural gas or hydrogen will be available in your area. Some of those estimates will turn out to be off the mark, but you can still put a plan in place knowing you’ll have to adjust along the way.

Amazon’s Silkey noted that the company’s 2019 climate pledge was based on the science it saw emerging to reduce greenhouse gases. “My role in the middle-mile surface transportation group is to work aggressively to reduce our carbon footprint,” Silkey says. “But there is a lot of complexity to drive the technology we need to scale. We don’t have that figured out yet.”

With reporting from Senior Contributing Editor Jack Roberts. This article first appeared as the cover story in the September 2022 issue of Heavy Duty Trucking.

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