Tesco’s distribution fleet at risk of being ‘left behind’ in decarbonisation movement

Tesco's engineering and maintenance manager has claimed that there is "no love for the lorry" when it comes to promoting fuel efficiency and decarbonising exhaust emissions, and has called on Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) and policymakers to provide more clarity on a low-carbon future for freight fleets.

Speaking at the LowCVP’s annual conference in London on Thursday (30 June), Tesco’s Caroline Sindrey revealed that efforts to reduce emissions from the supermarket’s distribution vehicles had derived from efficiency measures such as aerodynamics and that alternative fuel types had provided “no carbon benefits whatsoever”.

“At Tesco, we’ve been trying to curb carbon emissions from our distribution operations since 1997,” Sindrey said. “None our emission reductions in this time have come from an alternative fuel or a new type of powertrain. They come from operational efficiency improvements such as moving to larger and heavier vehicles to move more goods in one journey and remove road miles.

“For commercial vehicles, downsizing and improved efficiency don’t go together. Moving 44 tonnes of goods on an electric powertrain isn’t an option and I think alternative fuels are our best hope. Unfortunately, running on alternative fuels such as liquefied natural gas (LNG) – which is a fossil fuel derived gas – and trying to make a diesel engine, which has been optimised to run on diesel for over 100 years, and make it run on an alternative fuel has created the situation where the efficiency losses that we found in our operation negated any carbon benefits from using LNG over diesel.”

‘Get the ball rolling’

Even though Sindrey is a huge believer in the potential of alternative fuels, she admitted that freight fleets were being “left behind”. In an effort to remedy this, Tesco has turned to OEMs to trail new innovations to lower exhaust emissions. Despite some promising concepts the company is yet to find a truly revolutionary method to curb emissions.

Sindrey revealed that Tesco had trialled the UK’s first gas-powered trucks from heavy vehicles suppliers Scania last year. While these trucks provided some “promising results” the fact that they were limited to transporting 19 tonnes wasn’t a viable option for Tesco, which has committed to 30-40 tonne deliveries on single optimised routes.

However, Sindrey believes that if OEMs and policy makers begin to collaborate then the results will come. She alluded to the Daventry International Distribution Centre (Dirft), the international rail freight terminal in Northampton, has an example of how governments can provide funding for OEMs to establish alternative fuel “hotspots” for low-emissions heavy vehicles. Another collaborative example is the recent unveiling of the Global Logistics Emissions Council’s (GLEC) Framework for freight emissions in the supply chain.

The Dirft centre is currently used by Tesco, Sainsbury’s and DHL among others as a distribution centre and was backed by government to supplement gas-powered freight fleets. According to Sindrey, the concept wasn’t a “fantastically great success story” but it has got “the ball rolling” on how governments can fund particular fuel types. Despite this, Sindrey wants to see more funding avenues open up to complement Tesco’s 35 duel fuel vehicles.

“The lorry is not loved,” Sindrey added. “It is a problem, and if were serious about decarbonising these vehicles then there are some really difficult decisions that have to be made across the whole of the UK. A discussion has to be had on changing the mindset on bigger vehicles, because actually one of them is better than 20 smaller vehicles causing congestion and traffic.

“We welcome any OEMs that get involved with these technologies and drive down carbon emissions and we will trial them.”

No blanket approach

Also speaking at the event was Shell UK’s business and technology development manager Michael Copson, who claimed that synthetic diesel may provide a solution to Tesco’s dilemma. When quizzed on where hydrogen fits in to the alternative fuels equation, Copson claimed that it has great potential as a future fuel but that legislation will have to complement each fuel individually.

“Hydrogen is a long term solution, and it think it’s a compelling solution, but I wouldn’t want to put a pound on the timescale for it to make a difference at the moment,” Copson said. “Regulators and policy makers need to ensure that we get the right solution on the right timeline for the right price.

“It’s very easy to bash regulations in hindsight and I think this is where it becomes increasingly complex because you can’t just have a blanket solution of one size fits all for fuels. Funding fuels may need a little bit more imagination and local authorities should be empowered to do so rather than this constant tension between the national guidelines and what authorities view as their own issues.”

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Matt Mace

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