Boosted by billions of dollars for electrification, the rapidly advancing market for battery-powered commercial trucks will soon learn whether there is enough juice to begin scaling a transformation from diesel to zero tailpipe emission electric transport.
It doesn’t look good.
“We’ve got to worry about supply and demand, and we’ve got to make sure that all these things come together, and that means like now. The race is on right now,” Britta Gross, managing director of the Carbon Free Mobility Program at RMI, formerly known as the Rocky Mountain Institute, told FreightWaves.
“There’s no question that we are nearing the point where infrastructure is going to become the barrier and the impediment to electric truck adoption.”
Four areas are critical to trucking electrification: the trucks, batteries, chargers and ample electric power – the latter of which is the biggest unknown.
The Federal Jobs Act included $2.5 billion for electric infrastructure and the California Energy Commission (CEC) set aside $50 million. Money for U.S. development of battery cells and other key components does not have a specific carve-out for commercial vehicles, though they are beneficiaries.
“We do believe that infrastructure with battery cell and other key components supply will be the limiting factor for scaling,” said Mike Roeth, executive director of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency. “The infrastructure bill will help, but with passenger cars and smaller truck demand, that is a lot of projects to get done.”
The Department of Energy lists 13 new U.S. electric vehicle battery plants expected to be operational by 2025. Only two appear to have plans for commercial vehicle batteries. The rest are aimed at passenger vehicles. Startups Proterra Inc. and Romeo Technologies are focused on battery-electric trucks and buses.
Still a chicken-and-egg problem
More and more electric trucks are arriving weekly. Manufacturers are integrating them onto conventional production lines in Oregon, Virginia and Texas. Sales are still small with few orders exceeding a dozen, but regulations alone will drive those numbers higher. Daimler Truck predicts battery-electric and fuel cell trucks will account for 60% of its production by 2030.
“Once the models are there, what really frightens the automakers and the truck makers [is] they invest this money; they give notice, and still the infrastructure’s not built in advance,” Gross said. “They’re almost held hostage to this lack of infrastructure.”
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Consider the Interstate 5 corridor that runs through California, Oregon and Washington. The viability of electric trucks depends on a reliable supply of electricity feeding the chargers, most of which don’t exist. When Daimler moved Freightliner eCascadias from Portland, Oregon, for fleet testing in California, it recharged at Level 2 equipment intended for passenger cars.
“Those investments have to start happening with a sense of urgency or we just won’t be able to tap into the regional trucking market,” Gross said.
Even with the Biden administration’s pledge to build 500,000 charging stations, the perception is that too little charging exists. Public charging is part of the answer. Startup ChargePoint and NATSO, the trade group for truck stop and travel plazas, announced a plan in February 2020 to install 4,000 off-highway mostly direct current (DC) fast chargers by 2030.
“Given the size of fast-charging infrastructure needed to support long-haul trucking, we anticipate that more operations will utilize behind-the-fence charging with a hub-and-spoke model, where the medium- and heavy-duty EVs return to the same depot for charging after traveling their regular routes,” said Jeff Myrom, director of electric transportation customer products at Consumers Energy in Jackson, Michigan.
Startup WattEV broke ground in December on its first solar-powered truck charging station in Bakersfield, California, It plans to build electric truck stops along the Interstate 5 and Highway 99 trucking corridors through the Central Valley, the San Joaquin Valley and beyond. It envisions a Truck as a Service business to accompany the heavy-duty charging network.
Economics of charging
Charging electric cars compared to electric trucks is all about battery size and how much energy the batteries can hold. Passenger cars can use super-slow Level 1 trickle chargers at 110 volts and Level 2 chargers that pack 240 volts for faster recharging. A combination of home chargers and public charging is enough for most commuters.
Many Class 3-6 medium-duty trucks used for pickup and delivery, or that cover a specific route and return to base for overnight charging, can get by with Level 2 charging. BETs offering single-charge range of 100 miles or less comfortably handle these duty cycles.
Large trucks take longer to recharge and need more power more quickly. Chargers from 50 kilowatts to 350 kW are more complicated, time consuming and expensive to install. Fleet operators need to dedicate staff to working with utilities to figure out construction, timelines and costs.
“This is not like operating your diesel trucks,” Gross said. “You now have an energy source on your property, and you need to bring in the utility, and you need people to talk to them,” Gross said.
Higher power charging could come from tapping into power lines and dropping down power to DC fast chargers.
“What’s a fair price to charge someone who is tapping into the grid and wants instantaneous 350 kW charging,” Gross asked. “It just adds cost. So we have to be practical about where all this leads.”
Then there’s megawatt charging, which delivers electricity four times faster than today’s fastest light-duty vehicle chargers. Daimler and Portland General Electric plan a megawatt charger for an electric island they opened in April near DTNA headquarters. WattEV plans a dozen megawatt charging stations at its facilities.
“I think eventually they’ll be useful, but right now the vehicle batteries aren’t necessarily ready from a thermal standpoint,” said Amy Dobrikova, vice president of fleet solutions at electric services company Blink Charging.
The hydrogen option
Hydrogen also has a role as a transportation fuel, especially for long-haul trucks. BETs typically max out their range on a single charge between 200 and 300 miles. In liquid or gaseous form, hydrogen can fill a truck in about the same time as diesel and match a diesel’s distance between fill ups. It also can be stored for later use.
“Hydrogen is going to become very, very real when we start to answer questions about the grid, and how we’re going to store clean energy on the grid for more than two hours,” Gross said.
Startups Nikola Corp. and Hyzon Motors are both pursuing partners to make hydrogen to power their fuel cell electric trucks. Toyota Motor Corp. plans to build fuel cell systems in Kentucky in 2023, and Daimler Truck and Volvo Group have formed a fuel cell joint venture with trucks sold by both companies in the second half of the decade.
Big boys don’t cry
Big fleets with big bucks can brute force their way to adopting battery-electric trucks by taking advantage of being first movers. To date they have soaked up most of the grant money available through California’s Hybrid and Zero-Emission Truck and Bus Voucher Incentive Project (HVIP). Large fleets have other levers to pull for public help.
Privately held NFI Industries will pay about half of a $38 million cost to create the largest ultrafast-charging electric installation in the U.S. — 34 DC fast chargers in Ontario to convert NFI’s entire drayage fleet operating between the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and the Inland Empire to battery power by December 2023.
NFI Industries and Schneider National (NYSE: SNDR) also received $27 million in subsidies for 100 Class 8 electric trucks — 80 Freightliner eCascadias and 20 Volvo VNR Electric models — from the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and the CEC as part of the Joint Electric Truck Scaling Initiative.
“Those fleet operators can just basically make infrastructure happen,” said Gross, who previously worked on electric infrastructure at General Motors, first for hydrogen and later for battery-electric vehicles. “They own the investment, they own the property, and generally speaking, in cases where they do, they can just make it happen.
“The challenge there is that you don’t run the grid in a vacuum. You’ve got to be talking to the utility. You’ve got to be looking at the cost of electricity, even the demand charges that you might face at night. Some of these investments on the utility side require regulatory approval and these things have to be thought of in advance.”
NFI got money from the CARB, the CEC and the South Coast Air Quality Management District and is 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.
“I think at least for the immediate couple of years, the funding and incentives are still going to be critical for the economic models,” Rachel Moses, Electrify America director of commercial services, business development and green cities, told FreightWaves in August.
Helping the little guys
The playing field is less even for smaller fleets of 11 or fewer trucks that make up about 90% of all trucking companies. The up-front cost of a battery electric truck (BET) is up to three times the price of a diesel-powered rig. Add to that the cost of a charger, usually installed at a depot. By comparison, diesel fuel is ubiquitous and carries a per-gallon surcharge for freight customers.
Operating costs and maintenance are much lower for battery-electric trucks because they have fewer parts to fail or wear out. A March 2021 study from UCLA’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Center for Environmental Public Policy at UC Berkeley said the falling cost of batteries makes the total cost of ownership 13% below similar diesel models today.
Through the Advanced Clean Truck rule passed in June 2020, California all but requires a transition to electricity. An increasing percentage of new Class 8 trucks registered in California must have zero tailpipe emissions beginning at 9% in 2024 and rising to 75% by 2035. Fifteen other states are following the Golden State.
BETs or hydrogen-powered fuel cells are the only known ways to get there. A natural gas-electric hybrid called the Hypertruck ERX from startup Hyliion Holdings now due in 2023 could qualify since the battery size has been increased for a longer pure-electric range.
“We definitely want to make HVIP more accessible to small fleets,” said Niki Okuk, who manages HVIP grants for Calstart, a nonprofit dedicated to cleaning up truck transportation through zero-emission technologies.
“But I think what we’re realizing about why maybe these smaller companies have not applied for HVIP vouchers is because they don’t have the staff to really think about this process,” she told FreightWaves.