When it comes to extremely low or zero emissions, electric vehicles have been dominating the conversation, but their deployment in the beverage delivery space remains relatively low. As all-electric technology steadily expands in the market during the next several years, continuous opportunities also will emerge for other green fuel types.

The market already has seen a number of operations integrate natural gas into their fleets, for instance, but we likely can expect propane to become a bigger part of the conversation — especially if recent news from Roush CleanTech is any indication.

Roush, which designs, engineers, manufactures and installs propane fuel systems, has developed an ultra-low nitrogen oxide (NOx) engine that can operate on non-fossil-fuel renewable propane — running on 100 percent renewable raw materials such as waste, residue and sustainably produced vegetable oils.

Renewable propane is an evolution from petroleum-based propane autogas, which is itself, a viable option for fleets looking for cleaner fuel options. During the past three or four years, the propane conversation has shifted away from light-duty to medium-duty, all the way up to Class 7.

“Based on customer discussions, they’re saying, ‘we’re done with diesel,’” says Todd Mouw, president of Roush CleanTech. “Diesel is not the sweet spot for them.”

Fleets might be moving away from diesel, but the fuel isn’t going away any time soon, experts say. Recent research from business information provider IHS Markit found that 60 percent of new medium- and heavy-duty commercial vehicles sold in the United States will be fueled by diesel, including diesel hybrids, in 2040, down from 80 percent today.

Diesel is expected to maintain its dominance during the next two decades, due mainly to increases in fuel economy that will keep it competitive with alternative powertrains, IHS Markit’s “Reinventing the Truck” study says. But as alternative technologies advance, they’ll continue to steadily grow, gradually cutting into diesel’s share.

Among those is battery-electric vehicle technology, which IHS Markit projects will enjoy a 15 percent compound annual growth rate in the United States between now and 2040. This is especially true as adoption rates increase for medium-duty trucks, especially for Class 4 and 5 trucks in urban delivery environments.

Last month, Peterbilt unveiled its latest electric vehicle, the 220EV, joining its previously announced Model 520EV and Model 579EV, which are all-electric offerings.

The 220EV is Peterbilt’s first option in the medium-duty space. However, the company says the full extent of electric vehicles’ long-term prospects remains to be seen. “There are still many things being evaluated to determine the best business case for electric vehicles,” says Nicholas Smith, spokesperson for Peterbilt parent PACCAR. “That being said, Peterbilt does see the urban pick-up and delivery application that beverage companies operate in being one of the first and most viable applications.

Smith also expects the distribution market to be quite receptive to electric technology, as it historically has been receptive toward alternative powertrain options. In recent years, the adoption of liquid natural gas (LNG) and compressed natural gas (CNG) has been a prime example of that. “Many companies in that market have been very interested in testing and evaluating the electric powertrains that Peterbilt is developing,” he says.

Roush’s Mouw highlights that there’s a bright future for electric vehicle technology, but also asserts that renewable propane will have a seat at that table as well — particularly as states follow California’s lead and pursue near-zero emissions policies.

The Ford 6.8L V10 3V engine is equipped with a Roush CleanTech fuel system to 0.02 grams per brake horsepower-hour, which, according to Roush, is 90 percent cleaner than the current EPA standard.

“In California’s mind, that’s [electric vehicle] only,” Mouw says. “But once you get to 0.02, you’re in that category. There’s been a heavy investment in that innovation to keep propane on par and in the same conversation with electric vehicles.”

In terms of fueling infrastructure, propane is a “shovel-ready” solution, Mouw explains. “Roush customers have said they needed another solution that was ‘shovel-ready,’” he says. “Propane plays very well when you consider beverage fleet needs like lower costs and lower emissions.”

The accessibility of propane’s infrastructure makes the fuel an attractive solution for many delivery fleets, Mouw notes. “Most times, propane companies will work with beverage fleets — in exchange for a contract they’ll often put it in [tanks] for low to no cost,” he says.

As for electric vehicles, the charging infrastructure is one of the biggest questions to be answered when it comes to the widespread production and deployment of the vehicles, Peterbilt’s Smith says. “The demonstration vehicles that Peterbilt is producing and testing this year are going to private fleets that will have charging stations installed at the facilities that will serve as home bases for these trucks,” he says. “This is part of the reason Peterbilt sees urban pick-up and delivery as one of the early adopters of electric vehicles.”

Whatever clean-and-green technology ultimately ends up powering most of the vehicles on the road three or so decades from now, the shift isn’t going to happen overnight. A great deal of experimentation and a healthy dose of “wait-and-see” will need to happen in the meantime. BI