Can Freight System Efficiency Improvements Deliver Major Energy Savings?

Blog Post | May 10, 2013 - 9:37 am
By Therese Langer, Transportation Program Director

With heavy truck fuel efficiency standards in place and federal agencies gearing up for the next phase of the program, it’s time to consider energy savings opportunities in the freight system more broadly. Our new report Energy Efficiency Potential of the U.S. Freight System: A Scoping Exercise compares the findings of five recent studies to find out what energy savings estimates have been offered. Three were studies of the greenhouse gas reduction potential in the U.S. transportation sector, from which we extracted the findings on reductions in the freight sector through energy efficiency strategies. The studies generally found more savings potential from vehicle technology improvements (10 to 23 percent) than from combinations of system efficiency approaches (0 to 18 percent), such as shifting to less energy-intensive freight modes, improving logistics, and optimizing routing.

The other two were global supply chain studies, which we consulted in hopes of expanding the scope of efficiency strategies. The supply chain studies did indeed find considerably greater potential for savings from freight system efficiency improvements (12 to 37 percent, or 0.5 to 1.7 million barrels per day of oil in the United States) than the transportation studies found. In particular, the savings they attributed to approaches such as expanding home delivery, optimizing speed, and increasing load factor were quite high. The supply chain studies also considered prospects for moving the production of goods closer to markets, though they differed on whether that would lead to a net reduction in energy use.

While the supply chain studies offered new places to look for freight system energy savings, they were not as well documented as the transportation studies, nor were they U.S.-specific. Hence an integrated, comprehensive assessment of freight system efficiency opportunities, informed by a supply chain perspective, is warranted. 

The multi-year reauthorization for federal transportation funding is once again looming, so it’s a good time for such an assessment. Federal freight policy got some much needed attention in the run-up to the passage of the last reauthorization, MAP-21, in 2012. MAP-21 proclaimed a new National Freight Strategy and set in motion the development of freight plans at the state and national levels. Yet the provisions are focused almost exclusively on highways, defining the National Freight Network as a subset of our roadway system and mentioning intermodal facilities only in passing. A more expansive view of our freight system, and a clearer picture of the efficiency opportunities it presents, will come in handy when the next transportation bill takes shape in 2014.