Impact of Decarbonization on Freight

by Hannelore Book

The Road to Decarbonization

California is currently leading the nation in climate change policy, with CARB (California Air Resources Board) adopting first-in-the-nation rules to eliminate air pollution and carbon emissions from the railway sector. California paving the way towards cleaner transportation may inspire other U.S. states to follow suit, as all other freight trains in the U.S. are currently diesel-electric. The newly passed policy states that locomotives built after 2035 and beyond must utilize zero-emissions configurations when operating in California or from another state. While California’s clean energy goals sound great on paper, we are still many years away from achieving net zero emissions in the logistics sector. From the supply chain perspective, locomotive decarbonization won’t prevent supply chain bottlenecks, and the transition to cleaner energy will likely cause hiccups. For instance, electrification procedures involving electrifying lines over tracks are difficult to implement due to the vast distances that require a transition. 

However, with proper research and planning, decarbonization of the railway sector may eventually be viable, benefiting the supply chain and environment. Implementing new technology takes time and experimentation to iron out new processes and procedures, even for what may seem like minor improvements. 

Decarbonization Resistance

California’s railway sector is a critical component of its transportation network. While California is charging toward clean railway energy, how the state plans to achieve these goals is still being determined. CARB declared that locomotive regulation could reduce fine particulate matter by 91% by 2050, and nitrogen oxide levels could decline by 86%. The initial CARB proposed regulations have been subject to scrutiny. Many clean alternative technologies, like battery-electric and hydrogen-powered locomotives, are still fresh and being refined. And before California can officially enforce its new locomotive rules, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must approve.

Meanwhile, numerous railroad operators in opposition have spoken out against CARB’s new rules. Opponents claim CARB’S decision “isn’t rooted in reality.” Many cite that current clean alternatives are fresh compared to the existing tried and tested diesel methods. Additional reasons cited for resistance include the necessary technology and infrastructure to achieve the required objectives do not exist. While the possibility of transforming diesel-powered railways into electric ones remains, the conversion cost can be unrealistic for railway operators. Conversion to electric power is only practical when there’s a reliable power supply or battery storage aboard the trains. This fact rings especially true where long-distance and infrequently used networks come into play, inevitably raising the already high prices.

Benefits of Decarbonization

Despite high startup costs and additional red tape, demand for clean railways will likely become increasingly popular in logistics. As cleaner transportation and environmental efficiency become a priority for companies worldwide, electric railways will likely emerge in the U.S. While the initial conversion may be costly, this transition may present numerous benefits. Regarding environmental benefits, railway transportation has always been more energy efficient than other modes of transportation and produces far less carbon emissions. The potential for battery-electric locomotives to also serve as clean backup power could boost the resilience of the electrical grid. Additionally, these battery tender cars can be transported to locations facing extreme weather conditions to prevent total blackouts, thus conserving much-needed energy. They could also function as modular shipping containers for freight and maritime vessels. As multi-use instruments, battery tender cars can benefit the environment and reduce costs due to their versatility. 

When it comes to the potential economic benefits of decarbonizing freight trains, going electric has the potential to stabilize energy costs, eliminating the volatility and uncertainty of the diesel markets. Another advantage is that predominantly electric- freight trains already have electric drivetrains, making the conversion to battery electric from diesel much more rapid. The latest battery technology makes the transition all the more plausible, even making room for noteworthy savings. Battery electric technology offers one of the most cost-effective and long-term solutions to decarbonization efforts. For instance, battery technology can power freight trains 150 miles, an average day’s worth of travel, while using half the energy required of diesel-electric trains and generating more power. 

As battery prices fall and diesel remains environmentally and financially unstable, battery-electric trains will likely become more cost-competitive than diesel-electric locomotives. There are a decent amount of benefits to decarbonizing the railway sector. Not to mention, freight rail planning is centralized, inevitably making it possible for railways to achieve a high rate of quickly charging infrastructure, thus reducing costs further. Converting the railway sector to electric would produce 220 gigawatt-hours of mobile storage, creating a potential revenue stream for railway operators. Decarbonizing the railways does have economic benefits. With the growing demand from consumers to prioritize clean energy, there appears to be financial momentum and promise behind the decarbonizing movement. 

Decarbonization Innovation

Despite a lack of alternative infrastructure, some key railway manufacturers are beginning to pave the way for electric railways. Numerous locomotive manufacturers, including Wabtec Corp, are exploring new and innovative technologies. In 2021, Wabtec introduced what it claimed to be the world’s first battery-powered freight locomotive. The train will utilize regenerative braking or direct-current fast charging to “refuel.” The manufacturer also explores using hydrogen fuel in freight trains, zero-carbon energy. Progress Rail has supplied BNSF railway with four battery-electric locomotives to replace older units. This train will be the first zero-emissions long-distance locomotive to operate in California. Union Pacific has reportedly invested $1 billion into “modernizing” 600 of its locomotives through equipment updates to increase fuel and trip efficiency. And when it comes to exploring the use of hydrogen in trains, Europe is further ahead of the U.S., with a handful of passenger trains using fuel cells powered by hydrogen gas. Germany is also setting aggressive goals, setting ambitious carbon-neutral targets across its intermodal offerings. The country is not a lone wolf, with many European consumers paying attention to their carbon footprint.

Status of Decarbonization

Much of the proposed technological advancements still reside in R&D. As a result, the industry still has a long way to go in decarbonizing the transportation sector. Most R&D focuses on incorporating hydrogen into power trains and internal combustion engines. Through continued research and development, the durability and costs of fuel cells will only improve, leading to increased efficiency. Decarbonizing the supply chain has the potential to benefit the nation by decreasing our reliance on petroleum. More diverse energy demands and more efficient supply chains will improve the nation’s security by reducing our sensitivity to supply and price changes. Electric and other sustainable fuels will become increasingly available and affordable in the coming years. With a collective focused effort, it may be possible for the nation to transition towards zero-carbon technologies. Despite the myriad of possibilities, one thing is for sure. If our society desires to progress in decarbonizing the railways, setting realistic targets based on our current baselines is imperative.

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