Cleaner fuels for heavy-duty transportation: A comparison of LBG, HVO, hydrogen, and electricity

Both the EU and transportation industry customers demand a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. How do the different fuel solutions compare to each other, and what does it require to adopt them?

The transportation industry is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and reducing emissions from heavy-duty vehicles (HDVs) is essential to reach the EU target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030. In addition to the Member States, transportation industry customers, logistics buyers, are also demanding greener logistics.

However, how these reductions are to be achieved is yet to be decided. Viable alternative fuel solutions for HDVs now and going forward are widely regarded to be liquefied biogas (LBG), hydrogenated vegetable oil (HVO), hydrogen, and electricity, but each of these has both advantages and challenges.

LBG has already proved its potential as an HDV fuel

LBG is a renewable fuel produced from organic waste and biomass through a process of anaerobic digestion. It can reduce fuel lifecycle emissions by up to 90% compared to traditional fossil fuels, which makes it an excellent alternative for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation industry. In addition, LBG is a price competitive fuel in parity with diesel, making it also a cost-effective solution.

LBG is already successfully used in HDV transportation in several European countries. There are around 9,000 LBG trucks in Europe today and the numbers are growing rapidly.

The refueling infrastructure is also growing rapidly in response to increased demand for LBG. During 2022, the number of filling stations in Europe rose from 500 to 650. The Nordic countries are covered by about 50 filling stations. Gasum is expanding the filling station network in the Nordics.

However, the production of LBG requires a significant amount of organic waste and biomass, which can, in future, pose challenges in terms of sourcing enough feedstock to meet demand.

One possible alternative to fill the gap between LBG supply and demand is synthetic methane, which is interchangeable with both LBG and LNG (liquefied natural gas). Synthetic methane is a renewable gas that is produced using hydrogen and carbon dioxide. It has significant potential to increase the availability of renewable gas fuels in the future.

HVO is interchangeable with diesel but more expensive

HVO (hydrotreated vegetable oil) is a renewable diesel fuel produced by hydrogenating vegetable oil or animal fat. It has a similar chemical composition to fossil-based diesel but a lower carbon intensity. This makes HVO compatible with existing diesel engines and fuel infrastructure, but it emits less greenhouse gas emissions throughout its lifecycle.

However, the cost of producing HVO is generally higher than that of producing traditional diesel fuel. This is due to the high capital costs associated with the production process, as well as the cost of sourcing and transporting the feedstocks used to produce HVO.

Another challenge is the feedstock used to produce HVO. The most-used feedstock worldwide is palm oil, which isn’t sustainable, and its use has been widely criticized.

Timeline for hydrogen still unclear

Hydrogen fuel cell technology produces electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen, producing only water as a by-product. The primary advantage of hydrogen is that when powered or produced by renewable energy sources, there are zero greenhouse gas emissions.

The downside of hydrogen is that the cost of hydrogen fuel cell technology and the infrastructure required for the refueling stations are significant barriers to adoption.

Technological advancements, infrastructure development, and regulatory support are all key to the adoption of hydrogen. Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles are expected to reach cost parity with diesel trucks by the late 2020s or early 2030s. However, these are estimates. The actual timeline could vary depending on various factors.

Electric vehicles are coming, but when?

Like hydrogen, the tailpipe emissions from Electric vehicles (EVs) are zero greenhouse gases when powered by renewable energy sources.

Infrastructure is a problem with EVs as it is still not in place. The range of EVs can be quite limited. In addition, the weight of the batteries required to power Electric HDVs can be significant, affecting the vehicle's payload capacity.

Projections suggest that electric trucks could become cost-competitive with diesel-powered vehicles by the mid-2020s.