The John Lewis Partnership on network upgrades, electric vans, and why hydrogen may not be the answer


The John Lewis Partnership is making major investments to eliminate fleet fossil fuels. The Energyst spoke to general manager of fleet, Justin Laney, about a new breed of electric vans, challenges with the way electricity network upgrade charges are allocated, and why he thinks overhead power line systems are a better bet for heavy goods vehicles than hydrogen.

Justin Laney

Last year the John Lewis Partnership committed to decarbonise its fleet by 2045, and that all its 600 heavy trucks would be running on biomethane by 2028. Recently, it announced an ambition to eliminate all fossil fuels from its fleet by 2030 and will achieve this by tackling the heaviest emitters first. The Partnership started planning a decade ago – and general manager of fleet Justin Laney says robust research and trials are key to success. However, he believes it is critical not to let perfection be the enemy of progress in cutting carbon today, rather than putting it off until tomorrow.

Biogas for HGVs

The John Lewis Partnership has been running biomethane trucks for eight years, says Laney. They are expected to clock up close to 20 million miles this year using the waste-derived gas.

Long distance and heavy trucks represent about 15 per cent of the Partnership’s fleet, but account for 80 per cent of its overall fleet emissions, hence tackling them first.

“We arrived at biomethane as the best approach through a large study with Imperial College in 2010 that looked at 13 fuels in total,” says Laney.

Biomethane is not zero carbon, so the long-term plan is to go electric – and Laney thinks overhead catenary systems may ultimately be required to fully decarbonise HGVs.

“But that is a long way off, hence opting for biomethane – because we can buy trucks now and impact emissions rather than wait for something as yet unproven.”

Today the Partnership is running 85 biomethane trucks. It has another 143 on order this year with all 600 heavy goods trucks in the fleet set to run on biomethane by 2028. Compared to diesel, carbon dioxide emissions from each truck are reduced by around 80 per cent, he adds, which equates to a saving of about 100 tonnes of CO2 per year, per vehicle.

Along with removing all fossil fuel from the entire transport fleet by 2030, the switch means the Partnership will save over 500,000 tonnes of CO2 by then. 

“Taking that out of the atmosphere now lessens the overall challenge of tackling climate change” says Laney.

“So while there is a view that biomethane diverts attention from the end game of electrification, we are probably ten years away from a solution for heavy trucks. It is key to recognise that there are technologies that can save carbon today – and consistently over the next 10 years.”

Hydrogen no, overhead lines yes

While a number of big businesses want government to commit to a hydrogen strategy, Laney does not see it playing a role within the Partnership’s fleet.

“Soon there will be heavy trucks with electric powertrains. That’s interesting because it is then relatively easy to have a range that includes pure battery trucks for short distance, urban use, and ones with ‘range extenders’ to top up the battery en-route for longer distance routes. The range extender could be a diesel or gas engine, or hydrogen fuel cell. You could also have a device to collect power from an overhead line like a tram: a catenary system”

“The problem with hydrogen is it is very inefficient. It is much more efficient to use a battery or to take power from a line,” he says.

“When you first look at catenary systems [overhead power lines], it seems crazy, and you think nobody is going to invest in them without the trucks out there. But it’s not as expensive as you might think to equip all the UK’s strategic road network with a catenary system, it’s about the same cost as building a nuclear power station. Once built, you end up with a technology where the energy cost is very low and the infrastructure owner can charge a margin on it,” says Laney.

“Long-term, if you have a choice of two energy bills, expensive or cheap, it is likely that the lower cost version is going to win. The indications are that a catenary truck’s fuel cost would be a half to a third of a hydrogen truck.”

While running overhead lines along Britain’s motorway and A-road network would be a major undertaking, “it is something that could decarbonise a significant amount of road transport,” says Laney.

“It is a big project, but we feel it is a better choice [than hydrogen] because of its efficiency. Extensive trials on live roads are happening in Germany and elsewhere, it would be great to get a trial going in the UK.”

Larger vans: a smarter approach?

Electrifying its small van fleet is relatively straightforward, says Laney. Solutions for larger home delivery vans are also starting to emerge and the John Lewis Partnership is working with UK electric vehicle maker Arrival on a trial from January 2021.

Should it prove successful, the aim is to move by 2023/24 to a full-scale rollout so that all 1,750 of the Partnership’s delivery vans and light trucks are electric by the end of their seven-year replacement cycle.

Alongside this, approximately 750 refrigerated trailers will also be converted from diesel to electric drive and the Partnership’s 1,300 strong car fleet will become 100 per cent electric. Any remaining vehicles that cannot be converted to biomethane or electric will use hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO) biodiesel.

The first four Partnership vehicles from Arrival  are due in service next year.

Laney says Arrival’s ground-up approach, incorporating aluminium chassis and composite bodies, boosts the business case.

“It means the kind of things that would cause you to sell a standard van, corrosion and engine wear, don’t apply. A vehicle like that could last 20 years, and EVs are quite upgradeable – you can replace motors and batteries,” says Laney. “Upgrading a powertrain is an option we do not have with a diesel van. So we think there are a lot of aspects to Arrival’s approach that will reduce overall costs and carbon emissions.”

Ultimately, an Arrival 4.25tonne van could replace the 7.5tonne diesels the John Lewis Partnership uses for two-man deliveries for goods such as sofas and fridges.

“Those 4.25 tonne vans have a derogation to operate at higher weights, so will do the same work as a 7.5t diesel,” he explains. “There are several benefits to that. You don’t need a truck licence for one thing, and you don’t have restrictions on driver hours. So it provides greater flexibility and the vehicle can be more productive.”

The John Lewis Partnership is now embarking on a project with a UK University to design a technical solution that removes the need for tail lifts on those type of vans.

Should it prove successful, “it means a vehicle like an Arrival could replace that entire 7.5t category,” Laney suggests. “There are a number of examples of where you can do things differently with EVs, and that is very much one of them.”

Test, learn, act

Laney says it is critical to choose the right technology, given financial and environmental costs of getting it wrong. “You have to understand the technology, hence all the work we have done with academia,” he says, “And then ensure you have really robust trials.”

The two go hand in hand: “If you have a good view of what is on the horizon, you can pick the things you want to trial early on and then have extensive, robust trials before you commit to any volume,” says Laney.

“We do alpha and beta trials: one or two units in year one, 10 units in year two and maybe 30-40 units in year three. After that, if it goes well, you are ready for a full scale rollout.”

But Laney reiterates the importance of understanding the science behind the technology – which he thinks lies squarely within the remit of the fleet manager. That is imperative, he suggests, because commercial fleet operators are facing the biggest modal shift since the transition from horse to car.

“It’s a similar scenario, hence the importance of understanding the technology. Because if you back the wrong horse, the risks are that you move too slowly. Suddenly your competitors have better access, happier customers and their costs are lower… while you have lost competitive advantage.”

Capacity upgrades: Footing the bill

In preparation for a large-scale EV transition, the John Lewis Partnership has commenced work on mapping power capacity with delivery requirements at around 300 sites. These sites range from large depots with fleets of large trucks to smaller Waitrose stores with a handful of vans.

While there are ways to spread the load, Laney says there will be “quite a few sites where we have no option but to increase capacity going into site”. He thinks the associated costs, and particularly the way they are allocated, “are a real barrier to electrifying fleets”.

“Firstly, because the cost is an unknown. But it can be very expensive and you can actually end up paying for upgrades that can be used by others in the area. It is not right that you bear the cost,” says Laney. “The principle that you pay for upgrades used by others is quite unique to power supply.”

As such, he thinks some form of government support or regulatory intervention is required to remove that barrier for fleet operators.

Free download: The 2020 EV report

This article is one of a number of in-depth interviews conducted for our The Energyst’s new 2020 EV report. It contains expert insight across a range of sectors, plus a survey of more than 300 firms around EV charging infrastructure plans.

Sponsored by Arup, EDF, Good Energy, New Motion and Total Gas & Power, the report also includes views from: Arval, Cenex, DPD, Dreev, Engenie,, Hitachi Capital Vehicle Solutions, Liberty Charge, Mitie, National Grid, Nottingham City Council, TLT, UPS, UK Power Networks and Western Power Distribution

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