An alternative look at diesel power

The diesel engine is one of the most efficient energy converters we have available to us today, delivering an overall efficiency of about 35%. Compare that to energy sources such as hydrogen or biogas which deliver only about 17-19% of their energy to the vehicle’s driven wheels and you quickly see the advantages of trucking’s main energy source.
Where diesel fuel runs into considerable problems, however, is with its sizeable contribution to greenhouse gas. Yet, as was eloquently pointed out at a Volvo seminar on climate change policy I recently attended in Boston, that does not have to spell the end of the diesel engine. In fact, one of the major advantages of the diesel engine is that it does not have to use conventional diesel fuel or other fossil-based fuels. Through the introduction of some sophisticated technology and minor modifications the diesel engine we’ve come to rely on can be adapted to run on a wide range of renewable fuels that would give our industry a shiny new image because they emit no excess carbon dioxide in powering a vehicle.
Volvo believes that CO2 neutral transport is not a utopian dream but rather a realistic and achievable goal. In recent years Volvo has sought to examine the viability of 7 different alternative fuel sources – biodiesel, synthetic diesel, dimethylether(DME), methanol/ethanol, biogas, biogas-biodiesel and hydrogen-biogas. It has compared and contrasted the benefits and drawbacks of these seven alternative fuels in a variety of critical areas such as climate impact, energy efficiency, land use efficiency, fuel potential, vehicle adaptation, fuel cost and fuel infrastructure.
It has made for a great deal of ground breaking work from an industry supplier that has clearly chosen to neither deny the threat of global warming and our industry’s contribution to it (as some carriers and media personalities shamefully are doing) nor to ignore it or to simply pay lip service to the need for more sustainable energy alternatives. It has instead opted to roll up its sleeves and work to meet the challenge head on.
Sometimes very large companies with a specific and worthy goal in mind can change an industry, creating a market for new technologies. But the challenge of moving towards more sustainable fuel sources is not a challenge that any one company – even one the size of Volvo with its global connections – can successfully tackle on its own.
To make the switch to alternative fuels also requires a leap of faith from government, the transport industry, and the companies that serve transportation’s energy needs. Yet as Leif Johansson, the CEO of Volvo Group, acknowledged, the headway being made towards the production and distribution of renewable fuels on a major scale has so far proved disappointing. In his own words, there seems to be “lots of very good talk, very little investment.”
I think that’s a tragic reality that runs counter to our entrepreneurial business culture. To borrow from Johansson’s insight once again, when we consider the environment, and what we have to do to maintain it, we often get it wrong. We think it’s going to cost too much when, in fact, environmental initiatives such as seeking alternative fuel sources are about reducing long term costs, improving the sustainability of our practices and reaping the rewards.

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With more than 25 years of experience reporting on transportation issues, Lou is one of the more recognizable personalities in the industry. An award-winning writer well known for his insightful writing and meticulous market analysis, he is a leading authority on industry trends and statistics.

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  • Lou,
    I love these stories. In Johansson’s own words; there seems to be “lots of very good talk, very little investment.” Do you or other media types, tragically separated from economics, ever ask yourself why there’s little investment?
    After reading this column and others of yours, it seems you feel no compulsion to defend our industry but rather rail against it as if it’s a robber baron or a pillager of the environment; so easy to do while others produce and contribute.
    I reject the premise of your argument as you come at it from the supposedly accepted belief that there is global warming, if you don’t believe in it then you’re not rational, like those Holocaust deniers and because of global warming we’re all going to die. You write; ..”give our industry a shiny new image because they emit no excess carbon dioxide in powering a vehicle.” The only way we’ll ever be accepted by environmentalists is if we go away…completely. That might not bother you as you could write on any industry (before it’s also done away with.)
    BTW how much CO2 is considered “excess”? Have you given up your car yet? Do you still travel to attend conferences on global warming? What about the amount of CO2 we exhale? Could that be taxed? What if we reduced the source of those CO2 emissions? After all, it’s for the environment. And really, what price can you put on that?
    Somehow I bet you don’t mind pollution caused by non-private mass transit or government owned vehicles.

  • Well Lou, interesting slant once again. I have agreed with you before and disagreed as well, however, this time I reserve judgment (somewhat) and would like to expose investment reality a bit more.
    As an accountant I have many clients on many trucking companies. I also have many clients that have moved from Europe to Canada. So many in fact I thought it prudent to hire a bi-lingual account manager to assist in translation issues (a very good decision). Anyway, one of my German clients was a diesel mechanic for 15+years “back home”. Talking with him has been a real eye-opener to North American mentality. He was amazed (for instance) that North American maintenance shops sold or even HAD non synthetic motor oil for diesel engines. I believe he described the stuff as “cheep garbage” that’ll ruin your engine. His opinion of North American maintenance shops is that they are rather archaic.
    He also uses a Hydrogen fuel cell and gets about 22% better fuel mileage than without it. He says the technology isn’t perfect yet and has to tinker with it in our climate but he is committed to it. He says he has way more power (downshifts less on a regular hill he climbs) and said the emissions are dramatically less than conventional diesel (because it apparently burns cleaner) and in Sweden you can purchase a Volvo with a hydrogen fuel cell right off the assembly line (I can’t confirm that statement).
    He also regularly talks with a trucking company in Washington that has used hydrogen cells for over six years and neither can understand why the industry isn’t going that way (for fuel consumption reasons only). However, as stated, the technology is somewhat dependant on “tinkering” (whatever that means). It also is extremely dependant on proper installation. I personally think the industry should be investigating this more, not for the emissions aspect but for the fuel economy and to counter the current dependency on non-renewable fuel sources.
    Since 2001 the “pollution control” aspect of highway tractors (in my opinion) is a value subtraction sham. Diesel fuel used to be less expensive than gas but now because of the extra processing it costs MORE, the resultant rise in consumption also make us MORE dependant on global oil supplies. Going “green” has caused an entire industry to carry extra costs, conflicts, and needless public “burdens”.
    Incidentally I believe in climate change but not in the scaremongering non-scientific Al Gore style global warming hype. Al Gore says temperatures rise because of CO2 gases yet science clearly shows CO2 gases rise because of increasing temperatures. So what’s causing what and how long have we been monitoring a cyclical system (remember the Ice Age scare a couple decade ago?). WORST case projections show only 6-24 inch increase in sea levels (most show 12”), not the 20 feet Al “the scammer” Gore quotes. It is BAD science but media and government unity sure sells a lot of news.
    The reason people don’t invest in “carbon footprint technology” is because there are no predictable returns. In a non-scientific hype based “movement” talking and nodding bring much better returns. Lowering fuel consumption (thus costs) is the REAL attraction for potential investors. But don’t artificially force fuel consumption to 6MPG from 7MPG then come out with a “breakthrough” that rockets it up to 6.5MPG. Investors aren’t that naive… only politicians are!