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Clean Energy is Coming, Brought to You By Heavy Trucks

NACFE will stimulate higher levels of innovation and investment in trucking
By Kelly Vaughn

Having grown up in California, I return regularly to visit family and friends (and, yes, I do feel guilty about the fuel I burn on the way).

Each time, every six months or so, I’m amazed by the changes I see: a high-school parking lot where once the sun beat down on hot asphalt now covered by carports with acres of mounted photovoltaic panels or a bare hillside now covered by a new windfarm.

In California, renewable energy seems to be propagating quicker than I can earn time off to go back. Coworkers share similar stories after visits to other states—visible and mounting evidence that the clean energy revolution is happening. But, members of RMI working in the mobility and vehicle efficiency sector are quick to point out that one important aspect of the revolution—heavy trucks—is anything but revolutionary.

Ironically, trucks carried the turbines that now stand on that hillside and the solar panels that now cover the high-school parking lot, and they continue to contribute greatly to the rapidly changing renewable energy landscape.

But the trucks themselves are grossly inefficient.

The recent adoption of renewable energy technologies has been some of the fastest in history (for example, existing solar capacity grew by 60 percent per year in 2000–2004 alone). The growth has been driven by investment, access to new resources, and cheaper, more advanced technologies.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has focused heavily on clean energy development, and it is projected that tens of billions of dollars will be set aside for smart grids, investments in energy efficiency, and renewable energy and electric transmission technology loan guarantees. This level of investment and attention is usually reserved for advancing technologies that have already shown great potential—technologies that can contribute to “shovel ready” projects or can justify heavy price-tags in research and development.

Key to current investments in renewable technologies has been information. Luckily, investors, government entities, researchers, and suppliers all have several sources to turn to for access to for trustworthy information: the National Renewable Energy Lab’s Technology Transfer Office and the Energy Information Administration, to name a few.

The trucking industry, however, has been slow to adapt. Although the fuel economy of heavy trucks can be dramatically improved, recent efficiency innovation has been incremental, and the industry has failed to draw comparable levels of investment. Heavy trucks’ average fuel economy actually decreased in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as cheap fuel and a soaring domestic economy led to emphasis on capacity over efficiency.

So why does technology adoption thrive in the renewables sector while efficiency innovation in trucking struggles to reach the market?

RMI Principal Hiroko Kawai described the situation thus: “The freight industry, and the trucking industry in particular, has been burned by a snake-oil salesman approach to technology. There is little trustworthy information on different technologies that could help fleets make wise investment decisions. Technology producers share the same challenges; the dearth of reliable information stymies the adoption of their products.”

In short, there is no technology transfer office or EIA for trucking. The technology challenge, one of the major barriers identified at RMI’s Transformational Trucking Charrette in April to profitably doubling trucking efficiency, has since become a focus of RMI’s researchers and a group of dedicated partners, including companies like Volvo, Eaton, Michelin, Walmart, and J.B. Hunt.

According to members of this group, a lack of confidence in performance and an ineffective proof-of-business case make most industry players see investments in efficiency as unnecessarily risky.

To address these challenges, RMI and its partners recently established the foremost source of information on trucking efficiency technologies: the North American Council For Freight Efficiency. NACFE will collect, assess, and circulate performance information from testing agencies and laboratories, collect marketing and user data, and provide understandable, up-to-date efficiency information to share with technology developers, Council members, fleet owners, and truck drivers.

Think of it as a Consumer Reports for trucking—an independent entity that does the legwork to provide the information needed to make smart, educated purchasing decisions.

“By creating a freight system shaped by accurate information, the industry can capitalize on enormous economic opportunities,” said Kawai. “Efficient operations can set the stage for innovative improvements that are profitable and environmentally sustainable in the long run.”

NACFE held its inaugural meeting in early November in Chicago, at the University of Chicago’s Gleacher Center. There, freight industry stakeholders, truck OEMs, component suppliers, technology providers, innovation engineering firms, policy makers, NGOs, and research organizations began creating a “brand” for trusted, industry-accepted information on trucking efficiency solutions.

RMI’s researchers think this will help fleet operators invest in new efficiency technologies because they’ll be more confident that their efficiency investments will pay for themselves. “The NACFE will help provide evidence of real-world economic benefits,” said Kawai.

RMI believes that the NACFE will help change the way trucks use fuel, the way they are operated, and how they fit into the bigger picture of our greater mission—to eliminate the use of fossil fuels. With collective knowledge, focused investment, and prolonged attention from industry leaders committed to sustainability, the trucks that help to drive clean energy may one day be clean themselves.

My personal hope is to one day pass a truck on the highway and—just as I was with that high-school parking lot in California—be stunned at how much it has changed. Stay tuned.

Kelly Vaughn is a Public Relations Specialist at RMI.

--Published October 2009

 
 
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