LONG BEACH, Calif. — NFI Industries, a leader in helping manufacturers test their battery-electric Class 8 trucks, is investing nearly half of a total $38 million to create the largest ultrafast-charging electric installation in the U.S.
Working with Electrify America, a $2 billion entity created by Volkswagen as part of billions in fines and settlements paid in the aftermath of its Dieselgate emissions cheating scandal, NFI will install 34 direct current (DC) fast-chargers in Ontario, California. They will support 60 subsidized battery-powered electric trucks that will convert NFI’s entire drayage fleet to battery power by December 2023.
The move is the biggest yet pointing to the transition from diesel power to electricity in the nation’s most polluted corridor from California’s Inland Empire to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
Camden, New Jersey-based NFI took the initial steps in 2019 when it accepted the first of 10 electric-powered Freightliner eCascadia models from Daimler Trucks North America. In two years, those trucks have amassed about 500,000 miles, picking up freight containers in the ports and dropping them off at NFI’s facility in Chino, California.
The new facility, which begins construction in the fourth quarter, will put NFI about 8 miles farther from the ports. But the 150- and 350-kilowatt hour (kW) chargers being installed will “future-proof” NFI’s ability to grow its electric-powered operations, Bill Bliem, NFI senior vice president of fleet operations, told FreightWaves.
“We’ve come to the realization that battery electric is going to be limited to 300 miles or so,” he said. “I’ve been pushing the [manufacturers], ‘If you can’t get me 300 miles, then at least get me a faster charge.’”
The typical round trip to the ports is about 200 miles. NFI recharges its eCascadias and two Volvo Trucks North America VNR Electric models on a 150-kW charger in Chino after each round trip. Charging takes about two hours.
“We don’t want to put in all 150-kilowatt chargers and three years from now, when we add some more trucks or replace some trucks, not have a powerful enough charger,” Bliem said.
The Class 8 daycabs currently cannot accept a 350-kW charge. But splitting it between two trucks at 175 kW each is workable. Bliem thinks the 30 production eCascadias and 30 VNR Electrics that NFI is acquiring as part of the project will handle charges of up to 225 kW.
NFI has said previously it expected to electrify 25% to 40% of its entire 2,500-truck fleet by 2025. That goal probably won’t be reached, Bliem said, because current batteries have reached a plateau in how much power they can hold.
“I will say that a percentage of our fleet will be battery electric, and as far as this [drayage] fleet is concerned in Southern California, [it] will be 100% battery electric,” he said.
Avoiding peak demand charges
NFI had not set a time frame for the drayage conversion. With the expertise of Electrify America and grants from the California Air Resources Board (CARB), the California Energy Commission, the South Coast Air Quality Management District and Southern California Edison, the project took shape.
Electrify America, created in 2017 by Volkswagen of America, has deployed 650 fast-charging stations with 2,700 individual chargers for light-duty vehicles.
It is managing the fast-charger installations and batteries that will allow NFI to avoid paying so-called demand charges for electricity. These are additional fees that utilities charge non-residential and commercial customers for maintaining constant supply of electricity.
“We are able to store that power when electricity costs are low and supplement power during high points of consumption, which minimizes the impact on the grid and reduces the operating expenses by the fleet operator,” Rachel Moses, Electrify America director of commercial services, business development and green cities, told FreightWaves.
Expanding into commercial vehicles
Electrify America began addressing truck charging with the establishment of Electrify Commercial in 2020.
“We are taking what we have honed as products and services from our own learnings and offering it to those that are making investments in electrification,” Moses said. “We’ve been at this on the passenger side for four years, and this will be our first medium- and heavy-duty trucking program. Both parts of our business continue to grow.”
Electrify America is sure that incentives and grant programs like the one NFI is investing in will be around for some time.
“I think at least for the immediate couple of years, the funding and incentives are still going to be critical for the economic models,” Moses said.
Despite an increase in planned offerings of hydrogen-powered fuel cell trucks — and Toyota’s announcement last week that it will build heavy-duty truck fuel cell modules in Kentucky — Moses said hydrogen infrastructure is not in Electrify America’s playbook.
“We have not found a compelling business model for hydrogen,” she said. “Maybe that changes in the future, but not today.”