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10 September 2020

The (necessary) rise of LNG

LNG is an acronym that serves as shorthand for Liquified Natural Gas. Today, it is the future proof transport fuel for which vehicles and infrastructure are already largely available, affordable, and most importantly, have the lowest emissions. This is because the ‘N’ in LNG could be easily replaced with ‘R’ as there has been an increasing share of Renewable gas in its fuel mix.

Therefore, we are in dire need of updated legislative tools, referring to a Well-to-Wheel analysis to acknowledge its environmental benefits.

What is a clean truck?

LNG is a fuel used primarily for heavy-duty vehicles and in the maritime sector. Modern 40-ton heavy-duty trucks have the same technical engine torque characteristics, specifications, and power generation as their diesel equivalents, but with a lower noise level. Additionally, today LNG is also increasingly used for intercity coach buses.

The transition to alternative powertrains for the heavy-duty sector is quite complex as the need to safely store high amounts of on-board energy (or in other words: fuel) is fundamental: it is all about weight, vehicle range, safe storability and the consequent costs.

To compare today’s technologies: to operate a 40-ton heavy-duty truck for over 1.000 km, approximately 330 litres of diesel would be needed, or either 280 kg (620 litres) of LNG or, if fully electric, a battery capacity of 1.600 kWh. When assuming an energy density of 250 Wh/kg, this required battery capacity would mean a surplus of 6.400 kg in weight which will be directly reflected in a reduction of the payload.

To put things into perspective: a commercially-appealing truck must be able to travel more than a thousand kilometres per each fuelling operation. As such, an adequate amount of energy needs to be stored in the smallest volume possible. Thus, LNG is the ideal fuel solution for the heavy-duty transportation sector, and as such it is expected to play an increasing role in a global economy where freight trade exchanges will only intensify. It is therefore no wonder that there are already about 11.000 LNG-powered trucks on European roads today.

Infrastructure: energy must be where the vehicles are

LNG would not be on the rise if there wasn’t an existing refuelling network in place.

The gas fuelling station map (available on the Natural & bio Gas Vehicle Association (NGVA Europe) website) already indexes over 300 public LNG stations (and 3.900 CNG stations) in Europe. 50 LNG stations have been added since January alone. With their great range, these stations are sufficient to fuel the entirety of today’s LNG vehicle fleet in Europe, although it is not enough to face the rapid demand, especially that coming from the Eastern European countries. As such, the development of adequate fuel distribution infrastructure is a crucial factor to guarantee the flexibility that logistics operations require.

Biomethane on the rise

LNG is an effective and sustainable solution for achieving the EU’s long-term decarbonisation targets. In the short-term, it improves air quality, including that of ports and coasts when used in the maritime sector. This is a clear benefit over any other existing and market ready technology.

The use of natural gas can offer a CO2 reduction of up to 20% for heavy-duty trucks compared to diesel. Additionally, all gas fuelled vehicles can be fuelled with biomethane, or a variable fuel blend consisting of natural gas and biomethane. Therefore, emissions reductions that far surpass the 20% reduction mentioned by the EU are possible.

Today, there is already 17% biomethane available as fuel for Europe’s gas vehicle fleet. Currently, biomethane is mainly distributed as Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) which is usually dedicated to other types of vehicles besides trucks – passenger cars, buses, or light commercial vehicles – but is now becoming a rapidly growing reality for LNG vehicles as well. Depending on how this biomethane is produced, it can allow for huge CO2 savings of up to 95% compared to conventional fuels.

EU Green Deal: -55% CO2 made easy

Today’s vehicles’ emissions are only measured at the tailpipe and therefore gas vehicles’ immense, real CO2 savings are not acknowledged by the current CO2 Emission Performance Standards Regulation. Only a system approach, issued from the so called ‘Well-to-Wheel’ (WtW) analysis, can measure the impact of their “real” emissions on the climate as it also takes into consideration the origin of the fuel.

This way of CO2 accounting can represent a fair starting point and could produce positive spill-over effects for other fuels and transportation modes as well as it would be applicable to all sorts of bio- and synthetic fuels.

When used as vehicle fuel, 40% biomethane is already enough to achieve the target of the 2030 European Green Deal: -55% CO2.

A future with net-zero transport emissions: how-to?

Targeting net-zero emissions in the long run is a must. But for this to happen there needs to be a portfolio of clean technologies that, today, can match two main conditions: an ability to rapidly accelerate the decarbonisation process, while complying with customer and market needs which include affordability and accessibility. Therefore, we urge for legislative solutions to acknowledge the “real” environmental benefits of transportation fuels.

Gas is a transport fuel, and no matter whether it is for cars, buses, or trucks, it is the future proof fuel for which all these conditions are granted and for which vehicles and infrastructure are already largely available, in place – and most importantly – able to make a positive impact on our environment.

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This article was published at Euractiv on 14 July 2020 and can also be downloaded as pdf here.