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Build electric truck infrastructure, and they will come, advocates say

Utility consortium wants charging stations for freight haulers along Interstate 5 on West Coast

The Daimler Freightliner eCascadia (Photo credit: DTNA)

One week from today all eyes in the trucking industry will be on California, where air quality regulators are expected to approve a rule that will require truck manufacturers in California to sell a certain percent of electric vehicles. By 2030, 50% of all Class 4-8 truck sales will have to be electric.

As groundbreaking, and controversial, as that rule may be, much more will be needed to transition the heavy-duty truck industry away from fossil fuels. Top of the list is building out the charging infrastructure so commercial vehicles have easy access to fueling stations.

“The deployment of e-trucks takes more than we are used to,” said Nate Hill, head of charging infrastructure at Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA). Like most OEMs, Daimler is accustomed to focusing on the vehicles, Hill said. “But we now have to look at infrastructure, at regulations and incentives and take a deeper look at customer use cases.”

Hill participated in a panel on heavy-duty EV charging hosted today by Forth, a Portland, Oregon-based public-private partnership, as part of its virtual Roadmap conference. The discussion took place amid of flurry of activity in the electric truck space. A group of heavy-duty truck manufacturers (DTNA included) and suppliers today launched the National Zero-Emission Truck Coalition, an initiative advocating for federal charging and refueling infrastructure and increased federal investments in advanced clean transportation technologies

Yesterday, a consortium of utilities in Oregon, Washington and California released a study recommending a network of electric vehicle charging stations for freight haulers at 50-mile intervals along the length of I-5.

Under the West Coast Transit initiative, nine utilities would support medium- and heavy-duty trucks with up to 10 350-kW chargers, said panelist Simon Horton, senior project manager for Southern California Edison (SCE). As the electric heavy-duty market grows, half of the sites would have the capability to be upgraded with additional ports and megawatt capacity.

“Obviously it’s a very challenging endeavor,” admitted Horton, citing the “astronomical” infrastructure costs in addition to real estate constraints and lead time for construction. “But it’s a very exciting initiative.”

An eye toward the present

While the Transit initiative is still in the concept stages, SCE is moving forward with programs designed to bring down the cost of deployment for fleets in the present day, Horton said during the forum. The utility’s Charge Ready program, launched last year, has a budget of $356 million and a goal of building at least 870 charging sites capable of charging 8,500 vehicles. The program covers the cost of all infrastructure except the actual stations for which there are rebates for specific market segments.

Panelist Sean Yentsch, director of facilities for Penske Truck Leasing, described in some detail the high-profile electric truck demonstration projects underway in Southern California. Penske and Daimler, along with NFI, are participating in an Electric Innovation Fleet initiative testing 20 Freightliner eCascadias and 10 medium-duty eM2s models at nine sites around the region. The project is partially funded by a $16 million South Coast Air Quality Management District grant, with additional support from the EPA and the Port of Long Beach.

“It’s a partnership when you go through something like this,” Yentsch said.

In lieu of real-world commercial electrification examples, Penske and its partners had to “invent ourselves,” Yentsch explained, showing slides of some of the team’s charging infrastructure solutions: cabinets designed to keep 20-foot, 30-pound charging cables off the ground and separate meters for the charging stations that allow greater flexibility in terms of where they are constructed. 

A load-monitoring and communications panel allows for remote dial-in and -out uploads, where managers can dictate how they want to run that charging and during what times of day. “It’s where the future is going,” according to Yentsch.

Other panelists echoed that sentiment several times. Electrification of commercial trucks can save a huge amount of money for fleets and utilities while decarbonizing the grid. But if fleets charge at the wrong time, the grid will become overloaded, and trucking companies will incur huge expenses. Load software can help fleets avoid high time-of-use rates and minimize peak power “in a way that doesn’t drive fleet managers absolutely bonkers,” Hill said.

In another bit of electric truck news, a report released this week by the Environmental Defense Fund and Energy Innovation found that California’s proposed electric truck manufacturing standard would save at least $7 billion over the next 20 years, primarily due to reduced fuel and maintenance costs, and generate income from the low-carbon fuel standard, a California regulation that allows zero-emissions fuel makers and users to sell carbon credits to companies that pollute.

The report adds to the concerted lobbying effort on the part of many green trucking groups to pass California’s clean truck bill and addresses what advocates view as the biggest obstacles to heavy-duty commercial electrification: concerns about upfront costs (they’re too high) and convenience (lack of fueling infrastructure).

New role for OEMs

Keeping those concerns in mind, DTNA in the past couple of years has come out with a series of strong statements in support of electric vehicles, claiming “the future is electric” and launching a Customer Experience Fleet this spring featuring six heavy-duty Freightliner eCascadias and two medium-duty Freightliner eM2s. The truck manufacturer is also working on series production of the eCascadia, expected to come online in the next couple of years.

“To take it to the next level we intend to do everything we can to improve our impact on the environment in a way that is sustainable to our customers and business perspective,” Hill said. To that end, DTNA has created a charging infrastructure team, designed to help fleets think through hugely complex issues such as site evaluation, grid connections, rate scheduling, maintenance and operations, and more.

One of the big lessons learned from the demonstration projects is to plan for the infrastructure early on, according to Hill. Fleets should allow for a 16- to 18-month lead time to account for equipment delays and regulatory requirements such as environmental impact statements. 

Another long term DTNA initiative involves leading a task force to create a new power standard for interoperability of vehicle charging stations for electric trucks. The current standard has limitations, said Hill, and “as we plan for 10 to 20 years in the future a new standard will need to be developed.”

The equity case

Panel participants noted California is taking the lead on clean truck projects because two of its air quality districts have the worst air pollution in the country, with cars and trucks as the top contributors. 

Poor air quality disproportionately impacts low-income and minority residents, said Jeff Allen, CEO of Forth, and in light of the current protests taking place around systemic racism, cleaning the air is one step the industry can take to better support communities of color.

Click here for more FreightWaves stories by Linda Baker.

Linda Baker, Senior Environment and Technology Reporter

Linda Baker is a FreightWaves senior reporter based in Portland, Oregon. Her beat includes autonomous vehicles, the startup scene, clean trucking, and emissions regulations. Please send tips and story ideas to [email protected].