Peter Harris, Vice President for International Sustainability at UPS, has 33 years of experience working for the global parcel delivery and logistics giant. We spoke with him about the company’s environmental vision, the importance of maintaining renewable biofuels as an option for the sector, the need for investment support in establishing reliable and smart electric recharging grids and what steps UPS is taking to reach its goal of fuelling 40% of ground operations with alternative fuels by 2025.
UPS, an IRU member, is one of the world’s largest shipping and logistics companies. In 2021 alone, it delivered 6.4 billion parcels in over 220 countries and territories. To keep its large customer base satisfied, UPS operates a multitude of light- and heavy-duty vehicles on the ground, and one of the world’s largest cargo airlines in the air. And while its successes are evident, the company is well aware that it has an important responsibility in setting the right example on sustainable logistics.
“Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating the environmental impact of our operations is a key ask we receive not only from governments but also from our customers and employees,” explained Peter Harris, UPS Vice President for International Sustainability.
In June last year, UPS announced its aim to achieve carbon neutrality in all its global operations by 2050. Additionally, the company pledged to reduce its CO2 emissions by 50% per parcel delivered by 2035, using 2020 as the base year. It is by using alternatively fuelled vehicles, however, where UPS wants to make a real impact by 2025.
The company has been investing in powering its fleet with alternative fuels for more than 20 years and currently operates more than 13,300 vehicles running on non-conventional fuels. This includes all-electric, hybrid electric, hydraulic hybrid, ethanol, compressed natural gas, liquefied natural gas and propane vehicles.
Different fuels for different operations
For UPS, ground transport operations fuelled by alternatives to diesel means operating fully electric and plugin hybrid electric urban delivery vans and four-wheeled electric-assist cycles. But it also means making use of 40-44 tonne trucks running on renewable natural gas for overnight operations between UPS facilities.
“Whilst we believe that electricity is suitable for urban transport, we maintain openness towards bridging solutions for other types of operations. Electrifying heavy-duty trucks is not feasible right now, hence, we are using bridging solutions such as renewable natural gas, which is up to 80% more carbon efficient compared to a vehicle running on conventional fuel,” said Peter Harris. “The industry has already heavily invested in renewable biofuels and, while waiting for battery-electric and hydrogen technologies to pick up, offers a suitable replacement for the short-medium term.”
“Dense and available high-capacity, publicly accessible electric recharging infrastructure is absolutely necessary“
Policymakers should take into consideration investments made by industry and maintain openness to a wide array of alternative fuel technologies. “We are moving from a one-technology solution to a multi-technology environment in the years to come,” added Peter Harris.
UPS recognises the importance of battery electric technology for urban and regional transport. It established a key partnership with Arrival, an up-and-coming electric vehicle manufacturer, and plans to start deploying as of later this year the co-developed electric urban distribution vehicle in Europe and North America. The vehicle uses lightweight materials, favouring efficient energy usage, and has the latest safety features and can receive over-the-air updates. While electric technology is just picking up for heavy-duty vehicles, widespread deployment will probably take at least 10 to 20 years, according to UPS. “Dense and available high-capacity, publicly accessible electric recharging infrastructure is absolutely necessary, coupled potentially with on-road charging via catenary wire or induction loop,” added Peter Harris.
On the use of hydrogen, UPS acknowledges that it will play a role, especially due to its refuelling speed and longer range, although it does face efficiency challenges. Both electric and hydrogen technologies, however, require infrastructure investment, and governments must play a role in providing certainty for the sector to invest.
Deployment challenges so far
One of the biggest challenges facing the deployment of battery-electric vehicles – apart from their availability and cost – is the amount of energy and time needed for recharging.
UPS currently recharges its vehicles overnight for approximately eight hours at its depots. Recharging vehicles during the day is challenging as they cannot be used for deliveries at the same time. Most importantly, the amount of energy required to recharge a whole fleet at the same time is high and often exceeds the power capacity of the building. This means buying additional upgrades from local network operators, which is costly, inflexible and complicated.
For this reason, UPS has led and participated in public-private partnerships with UK Power Networks Services, Cross River Partnership and Moixa.
The smart recharging system developed by these initiatives will allow UPS to recharge its central London fleet of 170 vehicles without further expensive and disruptive physical grid reinforcement and will also reduce the cost of the energy consumed. The role of policymakers in facilitating and supporting both the creation of new and upgraded electricity grids is fundamental in contributing to a greener road transport sector, according to UPS.
Looking to the future
A multitude of different alternative fuel technologies will play a role in the coming years, with bridging solutions filling in the gaps that electricity and hydrogen cannot currently address. To unlock the full potential of electric vehicles, a smart approach incorporating intermittent renewable supplies into the electricity grid will maximise efficiency as well as provide environmental benefits.
“Governments can help create markets for the reinforcement of conventional power grids which will avoid end-users paying disproportionately for the upgrade of infrastructure and encourage the provision of smarter solutions,” added Peter Harris.
Incentives, in this regard, are very important for UPS in making investment decisions. And, on the other hand, any form of double taxation should be avoided, as extra costs imposed on the industry slows down the decarbonisation transition. Funds earned from taxation schemes should also be reinvested back into the industry to support, finance and incentivise alternative technologies and their respective infrastructure.
IRU has been calling on policymakers to set ambitious infrastructure targets concerning the revision of EU rules for the deployment of alternative fuels infrastructure. The commercial road transport industry cannot afford to have a fragmented infrastructure network across Europe. “An ambitious but efficient vision upon which businesses can rely is absolutely necessary,” concluded Peter Harris.