How is Colruyt Group Technics working towards an emission-free future?
No more CO₂, nitrogen and particulate matter emissions in goods transports. It's a noble goal, but there's a flip side that is often underestimated. How do we go about this major challenge?
Herman Annendyck is responsible for the roadmap and roll-out of zero-emission goods transport at Technics. “The zero-emission story is not only about replacing trucks by electric or hydrogen fuel cell trucks. The transition has a major impact on the necessary charging and refuelling infrastructure, as well as on operating processes. The transport cost is more expensive than diesel: the charging and hydrogen refuelling infrastructure is expensive, and the trucks themselves cost significantly more.”
Despite these major challenges, our ambition is emission-free goods transport by 2035. Herman: “This not only relates to our own trucks. We want to include our suppliers and subcontractors in this story as well, from cauliflowers coming to us from the auction to the flour delivered to our bakery.”
A key element is the technology we choose to invest in. Herman: “We've opted for battery-electric and hydrogen fuel cell trucks. We've not included transition technology like hydrogen combustion engines or biofuels in this mix. Battery-electric technology is already commercially available and the hydrogen fuel cell is also under development. However, at the moment, economic reasons don't justify choosing this technology.”
“Over the next few years, we anticipate a limited roll-out in real conditions which will allow us to build the necessary experience and study the impacts. For example, trucks on electricity or hydrogen weigh considerably more and/or are much longer than traditional diesels today: we need to ensure the axle load on the road is respected and these vehicles remain manoeuvrable on public roads and at our sites.”
We always start from the needs of our logistics colleagues. They need trucks that can make x number of deliveries within a certain time span. An added problem is that with refrigerated transport, the products have to remain at a constant temperature. We draw up specifications taking into account all these specifications and talk to manufacturers. We then see who can cover what needs.
How does that work in practice? Take our ‘terminal tractors’ for example. These tractors move empty trailers at our distribution centres. The majority has a diesel engine, the electric alternative is now in its third generation. A diesel version needs refuelling every few days but an electric vehicle requires the driver to constantly connect the charger at every break or risk running out of battery later. And a tractor can't be charged at a charging station for passenger cars. Big investments in terms of infrastructure are also required in other words.
Testing and collaborating
We are constantly testing new technologies. These tests are more rigorous than combustion engine tests. It's easy with a petrol car: so many litres means so many kilometres. In electric transport the weather conditions play a big part. That's why we test products throughout the year so that we can study the effect on battery life both in summer and winter. Particularly in fully electric refrigerated transport – which is what we're testing now – these differences throughout the year are noticeable. In the winter the cold weather demands more from the battery, but in the summer the warm temperatures require more refrigeration.
Vehicles, and all the rest
We already mentioned that zero-emission goods transport is not just about replacing diesels by zero-emission vehicles. Herman: “Colruyt Group is making great strides in terms of charging and hydrogen refuelling infrastructure. We can't cover the whole of Belgium of course. That's why we're looking for alliances and our colleagues of DATS 24 play a huge role in this.”
The evolution to emission-free goods transport is a huge undertaking. Despite all the challenges, we are convinced this is the only right choice. And by investing heavily now, we avoid surprises later on. After all, everyone has to jump on the green bandwagon at some point, and if you're prepared, you'll always be a few steps ahead!