Transport Energy Network – identifying energy boundaries on the road to zero

Dr Penny Atkins, Principle Research Fellow at the University of Brighton’s Advanced Engineering Centre, shares some thoughts on vital changes needed to decarbonise the transport sector.

As evidence of the detrimental impacts of climate change grows, rapid reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases are vital. The transport sector is both the largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the UK and one of the most difficult to decarbonise. Urgent action is needed to develop and drive adoption of technologies to rapidly reduce emissions in this sector. Great progress is being made in reducing environmental impact in the passenger car sector, with around 8% of vehicles sold this year electric or plug in hybrid. But the energy requirements for other transport modes, shipping, aviation, heavy duty trucks and off highway machines, means that battery electric vehicles may not be practical for all modes. A new report released by the Transport Energy Network identifies technologies and fuels which are particularly suited to lowering the emissions for specific transport sectors and highlights areas where improvements in regulation, funding and industry/government collaboration would be most effective.

The Transport Energy Network was set up to accelerate transport decarbonisation. Supported by APC, LowCVP and the UK Automotive Council, it considers different transport modes (on road, off highway, marine, rail and synergies with aerospace sector), looking at strengthening the UK supply chain. Network activities are designed to encourage collaboration between communities and provide evidence to support policy.

The latest report details the output of a programme of workshops held by the network in 2019. These events were attended by a wide range of stakeholders across the supply chain and academia and aimed to understand technology pathways for future transport in hard to decarbonise sectors and the enablers for them.

The new roadmaps show the range of technologies that will be needed to decarbonise all our transport modes, including fuel cells, electric vehicles with on the go charging, and internal combustion engines combined with renewable electricity and sustainable fuels. The roadmaps also recognise synergies in technology pathways between sectors, where targeted collaboration could accelerate development.

Analysis of energy use in 2050, based on these technology roadmaps, showed that up to 75% of overall transport energy could be made up of sustainable liquid and gaseous fuels (for example sustainable hydrogen, ammonia, biofuels and biomethane). Action to optimise production processes and scale up sustainable fuel volumes is therefore absolutely vital to meet our commitment to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

To make sure future propulsion systems and fuels really make a difference to GHG emissions, it is essential to consider emissions over the whole life cycle of the vehicle. Current legislation focuses on tailpipe emissions, but we also need to consider emissions from production of the vehicle and fuel as well as vehicle disposal or recycling to make sure we aren’t shifting emissions from one part of the vehicle lifecycle to another.

Following the publication of this report, the network will be holding events to explore cross sector collaboration that could accelerate progress in decarbonisation. We will also work to understand in more detail the resources and infrastructure which will support the technology pathways that these roadmaps have identified.