Methanol, ammonia are important for transport but have the greatest role in decarbonizing shipping, report finds

The Decarbonising UK Freight Transport (DUKFT) Network has released a new report claiming that hydrogen-derived fuels such as methanol and ammonia may be important in some niches for road and rail freight, but have the greatest role in decarbonizing domestic and international maritime freight.

Illustration; Credit: Tsuneishi Shipbuilding

The report finds that the UK freight decarbonization strategy can be most efficiently informed by a whole freight system, and whole UK analysis capability, which needs to couple detail on both infrastructure and vehicle/vessel fleets with operational and technology specifics.

Moreover, the report suggests several ways to overcome the chicken-and-egg problems associated with decarbonizing road, rail and maritime freight transport. Collectively these sectors represent nearly 7% of UK CO2 emissions and continue to rise fuelled by e-commerce demand and cheap transportation costs.

The key findings include transition pathways and the gaps in investment for each of the freight sectors and how the gap can be closed.

For maritime freight decarbonization, it is estimated that the transition will cost ~£75 billion for the domestic fleet and on-land infrastructure.

The majority of investment needed to enable decarbonization of maritime freight is on land, and in the energy supply chain rather than on the vessels. This includes port electrification investment, particularly connections to the grid and provision of electricity at berth for cold ironing, as well as investment in the production of Renewable Fuels of Non-Biological Origin (RFNBO).

According to the report, several alternative fuels and their associated technologies are proposed to offer a transition away from fossil fuels. LNG and biofuels are currently commercially available; however, their scalability and overall emission reduction potential do not offer a pathway to zero emissions. Instead, evidence suggests RFNBO which includes hydrogen and hydrogen-derived fuels such as ammonia and methanol, will be the predominant fuels in the transition, combined with electrification for shorter voyages, ships at berth and in-ports.

Moreover, cleaner fuels and electrification will be coupled with wind-assisted technologies and other energy efficiency measures.

Given the long life span of vessels, retrofitting the current fleet will be a major driver in the transition and it is expected that retrofitted vessels could comprise nearly half the fleet by 2050

“There remains a clear need for identifying and articulating the least-cost configuration and strategy for UK freight decarbonisation. New Modelling approaches are required to address the challenges of simultaneous wholesale changes across all the transport modes. These models are sophisticated and take time to build but they are the only way of addressing complexity and they offer a low risk, cost effective pathway to reducing uncertainty and accelerating investment,” Phil Greening, Joint Principal Investigator of DUKFT, Director of Centre for Sustainable Road Freight and Centre for Logistics and Sustainability, Heriot-Watt University said.

 “The research has shown that when effort was invested to bring stakeholders from different parts of freight value chains together (industry, academia, NGO and government stakeholders), there was benefit to identify a shared vision and co-create ideas for both public and private actions aligned with unlocking investment in decarbonisation,” Tristan Smith, Principal Investigator of DUKFT, Associate Professor at UCL, stated.

To date, there has been limited public investment; funding has been provided to pilot projects demonstrating RFNBOs. In the private sector, investment has surfaced for hydrogen-derived fuels and onboard technologies, however, this has remained within larger players in the shipping sector and large cargo owners and there is limited investment specifically for freight decarbonization.

The report suggests that UK ports can be key nodes in the UK freight sector’s decarbonization. They are both interfaces between the modes (road, rail and shipping), but also represent locations where infrastructure and decarbonization solution synergies are most likely exploited.

They are also likely to be hubs for wider offtake of electrification and RFNBOs, for example for decarbonizing co-located industries. The role of ports in the UK’s transition needs to be considered broadly to help reframe them as centers for green opportunity, the document highlighted.

Furthermore, bringing stakeholders from across the supply chain together i.e. energy suppliers, port owners, vessel/vehicle owners, logistics companies, along with investors and financiers including institutional investors, is crucial in establishing opportunities and creating a platform to mobilize infrastructural investment.

DUKFT also found that there is a lack of clear demand for zero-emission fuels and this needs to change to create a business case.

“Early movers can mobilise and de-risk investment in the emergence phase of the transition by establishing alliances and initiatives, ahead of regulations. Alliances between cargo owners which aggregate local/regional demand for zero emission fuelled freight services, thereby creating long-term offtake agreements of future fuel usage between fleet operators and suppliers, can be highly valuable kickstart the diffusion of fuels and technologies,” Nishatabbas Rehmatulla, Co-investigator and project manager of DUKFT, Principal Research Fellow at UCL concluded.