"For traditional long-distance road haulage, hydrogen is the only solution"

Philippe Degraef, Febetra
Hydrogen Energy
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30 May 2022

Febetra — the Royal Federation of Belgian Transport & Logistics Service Providers — has, because of its central position in the transport sector, clear insights into the challenges and opportunities of emission-free road freight transport.

With its targeted lobbying at every policy level — from local to European — Febetra is helping create the most favourable legislative framework possible for the transport sector. The association also defends individual members’ interests.

"It’s definitely our job to defend the interests of the transport sector as much as possible," says General Manager, Philippe Degraef. "Of course, in doing that, we also pay attention to typical pain points, such as the need to curb emissions from road transport and the problem of congested roads."

Complementary to inland waterways and rail
As far as congestion is concerned, Febetra does not see rail and inland navigation as competitors. "It’s clear that we’ve reached the maximum capacity of our road network, and there’s no support for any major new road building. So we’re doing what we can to use the existing road network as efficiently as possible. One way we achieve this is by being complementary to other transport options, such as rail and inland waterways."

"In this regard, some of our members have been investing in electric cargo bikes. They’re especially practical for last-mile applications in urban environments. Given the continued growth of e-commerce — and therefore the sharp rise in the number of small packages to be delivered — and the fact that cargo bikes can deliver 24 hours a day in cities, it’s a logical evolution."

The diesel problem
"Up to now, 98% of all road freight transport in Belgium has been by diesel trucks. With fuel amounting to 25% of a haulier's total costs, you can imagine that diesel prices weigh heavily on profit margins."

Not only that, the Belgian government is also thinking of abolishing the professional diesel duty rebate system. This system means that professional hauliers can recover part of the excise duty they pay at the pump. "Our position on this is clear: although we’re very happy to support initiatives to facilitate emission-free transport, we want to emphasise that this is only possible if an alternative technology is available that’s financially and operationally feasible and can be widely deployed. While this is at present not the case, we don’t want the government to disadvantage our transporters by phasing out the system."

Carbon-neutral freight transport
"In any case, we need to get down to the business of rolling out sustainable alternatives to our diesel fleet on a large scale. Electric freight — from electric cargo bikes to vans and perhaps compact trucks — can play an important role in last mile applications but, for traditional heavy freight over longer distances, hydrogen is the only solution we can really have faith in."

"The point is that the range of electric trucks is too limited, and the weight of the batteries means that the payload is significantly reduced. Not what you want if you’re transporting goods, of course. And charging takes too long and it’s not certain that the electricity grid can handle such big charging capacities everywhere. Hydrogen doesn’t have these problems.”

"What’s certain is that this transition will need a lot of effort financially. In our view, this effort should be shared in some way between the government, the manufacturers, and the transporters. Given the limited profit margins in our sector, we have to assume that, if the carriers’ bill’s goes up, they’ll have to pass the extra cost on to the customer."

The ball’s in the government's court
"But, as welcome and necessary as the energy transition is, we need to be on the lookout that our competitive position doesn’t come under too much pressure compared to neighbouring countries."

"In the Netherlands, the government will soon be paying 40% of the extra bill (compared to a diesel truck) if a carrier invests in a zero-emission truck. And the Netherlands wants to invest a significant part of its income from road tolls to make road transport greener. The German government are paying back no less than 80% of the extra cost to hauliers when they buy zero-emission trucks. These are commendable initiatives but, unfortunately, nothing’s been decided in Belgium yet. And that's not a good thing because, if we don't take action, the zero emission vehicles will soon come from abroad and Belgian hauliers’ jobs will be in jeopardy."

"To boost hydrogen-powered freight transport in Belgium as well, the government could greatly reduce road tolls for these vehicles. It’s not that we’re aiming to pay zero tolls for zero-emission trucks, because of course they’re still road users and the roads need to be properly maintained. But, on the other hand, they’re a boon to the environment and that should be recognised."

"In any case, what we want to avoid is a scheme that further increases the tax burden on diesel trucks. In other words, stimulating the transition shouldn’t be at the expense of our current truck fleet."

Practical to dos
"Of course, we need more refuelling stations if we want to make the transition to hydrogen quickly. But I have every confidence that they’ll be there soon. The supply of hydrogen-powered trucks is also still limited at present, but there’s a lot of movement in that area too."

"Several Belgian transport companies have already started testing hydrogen trucks. Just to say that there’s enough interest from the sector."

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