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Navigating Disruption: Leading the transition to a decarbonized cold chain

Decarbonization is a term being used more and more around the world. For Thermo King, it has become a strategic part of our innovation journey and a way to advance our industry toward more sustainable outcomes.

Decarbonization is the process of removing greenhouse gas emissions from products. It is driving regulations, discussions around climate change, and sustainability commitments of companies and countries around the globe.

For many in the transport industry, decarbonization is a lofty goal with many challenges. Topping the list is the massive number of fossil fuel-based trucks, trailers, railcars and shipping containers that are relied upon daily to deliver goods throughout the world. While transitioning to more sustainable operations is a key to decarbonization, the disruption will affect the entire industry.

Navigating this disruption is especially complicated in the refrigerated sector. The global cold chain has depended on reliable and accurate refrigerated transportation of food, medicines and perishables for sustenance, health and economic growth since 1938. And that will not change, which is why the transition to decarbonized fleets must be done thoughtfully and with proven innovations.

As a leader in the industry, Thermo King has embraced the challenge to reduce the impact our products have on the environment and create sustainable innovations. This supports our bold 2030 Sustainability Commitments and 2050 Net-Zero carbon target while also helping our customers in their sustainability journeys.

Dedicated to providing innovative solutions

Founded on the premise of delivering fresh goods to communities that need them, we continually evolve to meet – and even exceed - customer and industry requirements.

We understand that moving to a decarbonized world will not happen overnight. It is a process that requires selecting and developing the right emerging technologies, partnership with like-minded companies and customers, and responsible integration that ensures infrastructure support and viability. This is a transition we’ve been leading for many years, working to make products that run more efficiently; burn less fuel or run with alternative fuels; utilize lower global warming potential (GWP) refrigerant; and more.

These actions have already made a difference and are helping bridge the path to decarbonization without sacrificing the performance of a customer’s fleet. For example, our truck and trailer units now come standard with lower GWP R-452A refrigerant. This will reduce the carbon footprint of our customers’ long-haul, middle-mile and last-mile delivery fleets by nearly 50% or approximately 650,000 metric tons of CO2e annually - equivalent to the emissions of 143,000 passenger vehicles per year.

Another example is the use of Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil (HVO) fossil-free fuel as a sustainable alternative to diesel fuel. HVO offers a 90% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and more than 30% in particulate matter while maintaining optimal product performance. 

To be clear, the path to decarbonization is not a one-size-fits-all journey. We are navigating the way with an evolving portfolio of products that meet customer and industry needs where they are today and preparing them for the future.

Mtu Pugh, VP Strategic Marketing, Thermo King Americas, Trane Technologies

The path to decarbonization

Electrification, primarily the use of battery technology that is electrically charged, is one strategic step Thermo King has taken to lead the way in decarbonizing the cold chain. It is important to note that the two are not synonymous; however, electrification is a good fit for the transportation industry due to its technological maturity. In fact, the automobile industry has been utilizing electrification for more than 15 years. We are working to ensure that the technology meets the cargo temperature requirements within transport refrigeration. And customer trials and data integration are key to verifying this.

We are building a strong base of electrified offerings throughout our product portfolio, and we continue to invest in an electrified future. Strong partnerships with customers and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) such as WalmartMorgan Truck Body, Loblaws, Martin Brower, Navistar, Daimler Truck North America, Lion Electric, and more are contributing to our success.

Our most recent innovation is the e1000, the first large-capacity electric transport refrigeration unit (TRU) without a diesel engine offered in North America. It meets regulations for zero emissions, including California Air Resources Board’s (CARB) TRU 2023 Standard. With no mechanical components to maintain and no diesel fuel costs to budget, the unit helps companies reduce waste and emissions, and minimize total cost of ownership. And it is already winning awards, confirming our impact on the industry, our customers, and the planet.

Research, technology trials, and development of the correct infrastructure is vital to ongoing success with electrification in our industry. A 53-foot trailer electric refrigeration unit traveling from California to Chicago has different challenges and requirements than an all-electric refrigerated van making inner-city deliveries. We understand this and are navigating the process systematically and collaboratively to ensure each step taken with electrification of products is with care, quality, reliability, and service in mind.

One example is real-world testing of our battery-electric trailer with customer partners who have equally ambitious sustainability goals. And we’ve had great results and feedback from those customers, including Walmart.

“With thousands of refrigerated trailers using diesel fuel today, we have the ability to make a meaningful difference when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” said Fernando Cortes, senior vice president of transportation, Walmart U.S.

Optimizing for performance

Also helping support the adoption of electrified solutions is data integration. Data is increasingly important to customers for effective fleet management, unit performance and energy efficiency. Thermo King relies on this information to test and optimize emerging technologies for product development. Data also helps customers optimize operations, which enables investments in more sustainable technologies, and will continue to play a key role in decarbonization efforts.

With this kind of approach, we are bringing more electrified products to market over the next 6-12 months – many with data integration as standard, that will grow electrification capability while meeting customer needs for enhanced visibility into fleet operations.

But we cannot stop with electrification. Fuel cell technology is important also, specifically for medium and heavy-duty trucks and tractors. We are successfully utilizing battery-power in some of our units, and we also have hybrid unit options and solar panel products that charge cells and contribute to emission reductions.

To be clear, the path to decarbonization is not a one-size-fits-all journey. We are navigating the way with an evolving portfolio of products that meet customer and industry needs where they are today and preparing them for the future. The journey will not happen overnight, but we know that a decarbonized cold chain is vital to our industry and future generations. Most importantly, it will leave our world in a better, more sustainable place. 

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