Consistently on track

Till Bischoff, Managing Director of Spedition Heidelmann GmbH and Heidelmann Kühllogistik GmbH logistics service providers, has been intensively involved in sustainable logistics for over ten years. Heidelmann is an active project partner in HYWHEELS, an initiative driving decarbonisation of the transport industry in the German region of East Hesse. In our interview, Till Bischoff talks about his regular investments in replacing vehicles from the company’s fleet to ensure that only the most efficient and lowest-emission trucks are in operation, and explains why his prime catchment area still presents challenges for battery-powered electric trucks.

 

Mr Bischoff, your headquarters are located in Schwalmstadt, a town encircled by the German Central Uplands, with gradients in all directions. In addition, the section of the A7 motorway known as Kasseler Berge – the “Kassel Mountains” – because of its hairpin bends and steep ascents runs directly past your door. As early as 1950 Hans-Christoph Seebohm, the German Transport Minister of the time, was highly critical of this highway, even describing it as “a transport absurdity”. Do your location and your catchment area have a direct impact on your ability to deploy battery-powered electric vehicles?

Till Bischoff: “Yes they do, in a number of ways. The range of battery-powered electric vehicles, or BEVs, is still very limited here because of the specific topography of our region. Over the course of a year, we transport around 300 tonnes of foodstuffs within a radius of 150 kilometres. Our trucks notch up mileages of 300 to 400 kilometres a day. At a BEV’s current range of up to 220 kilometres, we would have to factor in significantly more time per journey to take account of the essential charging periods. The same problem faces e-trucks that travel along the Kasseler Berge. The route gobbles up power, and costs soar as a result. But we can’t shoulder these increased costs on our own; we need support. Government support programmes, new legal frameworks and straightforward processes without unnecessary red tape are all particularly effective in helping us implement this energy transformation in the logistics industry.

The technical and bureaucratic challenges are proving to be major hurdles for you at present…

Till Bischoff: “Well, we have to come to terms with them for the moment. But we will continue to pursue our journey towards sustainable logistics, despite all the difficulties along the way – many of which are not easy for a medium-sized freight company to master. After all, there is ultimately absolutely no question that we all have to switch to innovative and resource-saving actions if we want the generations of the future to inherit a planet worth living on.”

A clear-cut statement in favour of sustainable logistics from Heidelmann. What actions are you taking to put your environmentally conscious philosophy into practice?

Till Bischoff: “We’re currently pursuing a whole roster of activities, either in the planning stage or already in operation. We also act as partners for various research projects and provide support for them. Our newly built logistics system complies with the KfW 55 building efficiency standard, and we have installed a refrigeration system using CO2 as a natural refrigerant. Since May 2021, our solar panel system has enabled us to generate around 30 to 40 per cent of the energy we need for the new logistics system.”

Why only since May? Wasn’t the solar panel system ready for operation far earlier?

Till Bischoff: “Yes, we could have been producing our own power several months earlier, but the key is ‘could have’. We needed certification before the system could go into operation, and despite all the efforts made by the solar panel supplier, it’s been impossible to get the certification any earlier because all the companies with authorisation to issue it are snowed under with applications at present.”

So to be clear, you wanted to generate green power but were prevented from doing so by bureaucratic obstacles…

Till Bischoff: “Exactly. Annoying! But we’re not going to let ourselves be put off on our journey to sustainable logistics. With this goal in mind, we’ve already replaced all our lighting with LED lamps and regularly hold staff training to raise awareness about careful use of resources. In addition, at Heidelmann we’ve always paid particular attention to using the most efficient and lowest-emission trucks. We regularly replace the vehicles in our fleet at four-year intervals. We currently have over 100 Euro 6 vehicles.”

And you’re currently working with Fulda University and a major international food producer as you meticulously prepare for the purchase and regular operation of your first battery-powered electric vehicles. Can you give us any initial details of your first flagship project in the e-mobility sector?

Till Bischoff: “We are currently investigating whether the range of 200 to 220 kilometres given for BEVs by the manufacturer is sufficient for our needs. The issue is basically that we supply our customer’s production facility – around 20 to 25 kilometres away from our location – with raw materials from our warehouse. Theoretically, the route should be ideal for e-an e-truck with a potential range of 220 kilometres –but because of our local topography the truck would need an interim top-up charge, otherwise it wouldn’t reach the necessary range of 220 kilometres. The truck manufacturer agrees with our assessment. This means we have to set up a charging station to supply power to the truck while it is being loaded, so that it can then complete the route in emission-free operation. ”

A genuine flagship project, which will provide you with a wealth of experience for your overall e-mobility strategy as soon as scheduled services can be introduced.

Till Bischoff: “...Indeed; gaining experience in the use of these new technologies is absolutely essential to us. That’s why we are a partner of the HYWHEELS project, which was launched in 2019. In simple terms, the initiative is aimed at driving decarbonisation of the transport sector in the East Hesse region. A feasible concept is currently being developed, based on establishing hydrogen-based commercial transport for the East Hesse region, which is one of the most important logistics hubs in the whole of Germany. The plan is to use vehicles of all sizes and purposes and take commercial aspects into consideration as well as maintenance, HR and service requirements. Our goal is to place 1000 fuel-cell-powered commercial vehicles on the roads of East Hesse within just a few years.”

An exciting project! But which form of technology will prevail in the end?

Till Bischoff: “We believe it is vital to pursue multiple alternatives, because every form of technology has its own strengths and weaknesses. Given the current state of the art and taking vehicle range and battery weight into consideration, a 40-tonne truck on long-haul routes will be better served by hydrogen or fuel-cell technology, LNG or synthetic fuels. However, e-trucks can certainly be used for at least some last-mile and city-centre deliveries, quite apart from the cost factor. But considerations here still have to cover factors like range, charging cycles, unplanned idle time, weather and end-to-end cold-chain maintenance – to name but a few – if the logistics processes we provide are to retain their high efficiency, which is particularly vital in the case of perishables.”

When do you predict the last diesel-powered truck will leave your yard?  

Till Bischoff: “I can only give a theoretical and hypothetical answer to that question; there are so many aspects that play a role, including the truck industry, which will have to supply sufficient numbers of trucks with alternative drive technology and adequate range at significantly more favourable conditions than are available at present. In addition, the government and the market players will have to oversee the provision of a nationwide network of charging points or fuelling stations. And finally, shippers and recipients will have to be willing to pay their way in the transformation phase, because this essential development cannot rest on the shoulders of the logistics industry alone. Given all this, we forecast that the last diesel truck will not leave our yard until around the mid 2030s – unless, of course, the new drive technologies take an unexpected quantum leap in the meantime.”

Thank you for a very interesting interview!

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Christian Auchter
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