Diesel free refrigeration

With environmentally friendly refrigeration technology on the march, Dean Stiles considers the options available to cold chain companies.

 The removal of the red diesel rebate has accelerated the transition to engineless refrigeration solutions for many companies and for rigid trucks there has been a big switch to non-auxiliary engine driven units. However, there are challenges ahead for operators in terms of infrastructure, costs and government policies when it comes to low or zero carbon.

Carrier Transicold’s approach to the technological challenge of low-carbon refrigeration has been to base its range of electric powered refrigeration units on a common platform. The fridge unit on a rigid truck, whether it is diesel or battery-powered, is essentially the same regardless of power source. What is different, and crucial, is the interface between the power supply and the fridge. 

“They’re all fully electric refrigeration systems, but we create the energy in different ways, depending on the primary power source of the truck,” says Scott Dargan, managing director at Carrier Transicold, UK and Northern Europe. “If it’s an internal combustion engine, we can take the mechanical power takeoff (PTO), whether that’s from a gas engine or a diesel engine. With our eco-drive module, we create the electricity. Similarly with battery-powered trucks, or even hydrogen-powered trucks, we are able to use our power box module as an electric PTO.”

Today’s low-carbon refrigeration systems cannot be viewed as standalone units, unlike diesel-powered fridges, Dargan says. Traditionally, these refrigeration units have their own starter battery, auxiliary diesel engine, fuel supply and refrigeration system all packaged together, independent of the truck. Engineless solutions powered by the truck platform require the fridge manufacturer and truck chassis maker to work in extremely close collaboration to create a system that is efficient and that meets the operator’s needs.

The capital cost of an electric truck is much more than a traditional diesel-powered unit, with a lot of factors becoming sacrosanct, such as the range of the truck, noise levels, efficiency and emissions. “Carrier has worked really hard on these four key elements to ensure we have a best-in-class product to support battery and fuel-cell electric vehicle applications,” Dargan says.

He cites Carrier’s Iceland and Syberia units for the electric rigid truck market as prime examples, being half a tonne lighter than their diesel equivalent, and around 15% lighter than comparable engineless systems. This has been crucial to offset the weight penalty of the battery on the truck. “Operational range is obviously key, so this requires us to be ultra-efficient in the way we convert energy from the vehicle battery pack to our fridge. Using our power box, we achieve a class-leading 95% energy conversion rate, which is crucially important as it helps minimise the range impact from running the fridge,” Dargan says.

“We have opted for hermetically sealed scroll compressors with economisers to create optimised refrigeration circuits that greatly mitigate the chances of F-gas leaks when compared to traditional open drive systems,” he says. “And it’s no good having a quiet electric truck in an urban environment if the fridge is noisy, so our solutions are uniquely Piek-qualified as standard to operate below 60Db.”

This has been achieved by working closely with OEMs. Dargan says: “When they sit with a customer they have to be able to demonstrate that they have a refrigeration system that works best with their platform. Specifying a new refrigerated truck is now a much more complex process that has to be done in close partnership between the OEM and the fridge maker. Collaboration is the key, working with the OEM. We cannot do it on our own, and our customers cannot do it on their own.”

What cold chain companies should focus on

Innovation in diesel free refrigeration requires infrastructure investment to provide shore power for pre-cooling, however the cost of operating a diesel-powered system makes the challenge and resultant cost to change operational practices to accommodate non-diesel refrigeration more viable, says Jon Jerrard-Dinn, area sales manager at Thermo King and Frigoblock. Diesel free technology has been around for many years but digital temperature management and telematics is empowering operators to better understand operating practices at an individual vehicle level and drive good practice across fleets, he says.

Selecting a non-diesel fridge can remove as much as 6,000 litres of diesel or 16 tonnes of carbon per vehicle per annum from an operation. “Other than switching from a diesel-powered chassis, no other specification change will have a large an impact,” Jerrard-Dinn says. But at the end of the day the total cost of ownership has never been more important than it is today, particularly considering the longevity of many fleets, he says.

It is, theoretically, possible to replace diesel trucks with battery electric vehicles – but is that going to provide the best return on capital, asks Lionel Curtis, head of new product at Marshall Fleet Solutions (MFS).

“There is a cost-benefit balance to be looked at all the time,” he says. It is the same for zero emissions refrigeration. “Do we have a proven, reliable, zero emission solution for intercontinental frozen transport? Maybe not, or not yet, but we certainly have solutions for local and regional deliveries that can make a big difference, straight away, at an affordable cost.”

Zero emission refrigeration is still not quite mainstream for anything bigger than a light commercial vehicle, so availability of type approved solutions for use on new build vehicles and trailers is one obstacle, although that particular barrier is being lowered by the efforts of MFS, Curtis says.

“Cost is another, as electric vehicle batteries are expensive – the £/kWh ratio is improving but would be greatly helped with a local gigafactory coming on stream. Field support and technician training – even all-electric fridges will need maintenance – so dealing with somebody like Marshalls eases those concerns. Infrastructure – can your depot substation cope with charging a hundred heavy trucks and multiple refrigerated trailers at the same time? 150kW chargers sound great, but you can only run six per megawatt of capacity – quite apart from operating all the fixed installations,” he says. Ultimately, it’s all about energy efficiency, he says. “If a TRU uses less diesel per hour, its all-electric equivalent will use less energy per hour, allowing longer runs per battery charge or even a smaller battery capacity. We need to think differently about how we use the energy available and make sure we waste none of it.”

 A significant challenge

The big challenge is powering a fridge when stationary: many operators using established industrial sites don’t have the electrical capacity to plug in a fleet. And in the UK this is compounded by a lack of government help in the form of financial incentives. The UK government has addressed the vehicle engine, declaring all vans and rigids to be fossil free by 2035 and all other trucks by 2040. But that is only in the UK: the EU and continental countries have different objectives. The situation in the UK could be complicated in the future by having different measures in the devolved administrations. Add to this the local authority applied low-, ultra-low, and even zero-emission zones that are each evolving at a different pace. All of this can have an impact on a very expensive moveable asset – a refrigerated truck – that can cross borders, countries and cities daily. “We need to work collaboratively across all stakeholders in order to support them with future-proofed technology,” Carrier’s Dargan says.