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Concerns about grid’s ability to handle electric vehicles are real but not insurmountable

Electric vehicle charging infrastructure is still in its infancy, but is making progress. ( Photo: Living Labs )

Grid capacity remains a concern as commercial vehicle makers ramp up electric truck production. That is one of the findings in a new Guidance Report from the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE) on the state of charging infrastructure. Unfortunately, there is also no single path for installing electric charging infrastructure when building an electric fleet.

“Every charging installation faces a variety of variables – number of trucks to charge, local utility rate tariffs and power delivery structure, existing site and local grid details,” Chris Nelder, manager of the Rocky Mountain Institute’s mobility practice, said. “There are no rules of thumb.”

The Rocky Mountain Institute assisted NACFE with the report, which is the latest in a series of reports on electric vehicles produced by the group. In 2018, NACFE produced reports on applications where electric trucks make the most sense and the total cost of ownership for medium-duty electric trucks. Future reports on Class 7 and Class 8 electric vehicles are also planned.

This latest report, Amping Up: Charging Infrastructure For Electric Trucks, paints a picture of how important collaboration is when designing electric truck charging infrastructure. This includes working with local utilities, regulators, cities, neighbors, original equipment manufacturers, and charging system providers, NACFE said, as well as conducting proper planning, which can be time-intensive. Among the specific recommendations made in the report are:

  • Fleets must develop a fairly sophisticated understanding of their existing electric infrastructure and demand, their electricity rates, and the types, number, duty cycles and time available for charging of their vehicles

  • Planning should be done on a site-by-site basis. Fleets should consider investing in smart networked charging software and services

  • Fleets should demand improvements from technology providers and utilities

The report noted that the near-term focus of electric charging should be on private, “depot” or “return-to-base” charging installations. Tapping into programs that can help mitigate costs will speed the electrification process, NACFE said, and fleets should look toward investing in smart networked charging software and services where possible. Importantly, the report said, is not to draw conclusions in the first year of operation.

Jessie Lund, freight & transport associate for the Rocky Mountain Institute, said that utilities are anxious to sign up commercial customers, so fleets shouldn’t be “shy in working with them and telling them what they need.”

She added that fleets can expect more utilities to roll out programs targeted toward fleet operations, and as more electric trucks are deployed, the entire process will become more streamlined.

The success of electric vehicles includes not only how they are used, but also the capacity of electric grids. Utilities may need to develop new demand-management or storage solutions to accommodate rapid growth, the report found. It suggested that “tariff structures” could be used to encourage smart charging when electricity supply is available, clean and economical.

“Planning and permitting for charging infrastructure can be a time-intensive processes,” Mike Roeth, executive director of NACFE, said. “Fleets need to start early and should use the roadmap from the Guidance Report to make sure they have included all the necessary steps.”

In its conclusion, NACFE said that the charging infrastructure issue is “not an insurmountable problem,” but faster and broader design and approval of innovative programs are needed by utilities to scale electric vehicle adoption.

“Lag between product introduction and infrastructure investment has been repeated many times, and there’s no reason to think it won’t be repeated for commercial battery electric vehicle charging infrastructure as well,” it said.

Further, the development of new grid services yet to be piloted could provide further opportunities in the future.

For fleets looking to adopt electric vehicles, the report lays out an eight-step process to doing so.

1.       Engage utility to evaluate existing infrastructure, programs and relevant case studies

2.       Choose vehicle(s), considering duty cycle, range, dwell time, battery capacity and charging ports

3.       Determine charging needs based on daily kilowatts need for charging speeds desired

4.       Assess financing and explore available local, state and federal programs for possible grants and/or rebates

5.       Procure charging components, including hardware, software and maintenance and repair plans

6.       Design site plan for ideal location of charging infrastructure

7.       Apply for permits before construction

8.       Deploy charging infrastructure.

The full report delves into these topics and others in more depth. It also includes more than 160 references, a bibliography on how charging infrastructure works, and appendices that list suppliers and utilities with electric charging programs.

Roeth noted that the deployment of electric vehicles is being viewed by many as a chicken-or-egg problem – do manufacturers ramp up production before the infrastructure is fully built, or do the utilities build the infrastructure before fleets start broader adoption? Roeth and Lund said that this shouldn’t be an issue, but is part of the reason the near-term depot and return-to-base deployments in the medium-duty vehicle space will dominate.

Brian Straight

Brian Straight leads FreightWaves' Modern Shipper brand as Managing Editor. A journalism graduate of the University of Rhode Island, he has covered everything from a presidential election, to professional sports and Little League baseball, and for more than 10 years has covered trucking and logistics. Before joining FreightWaves, he was previously responsible for the editorial quality and production of Fleet Owner magazine and Brian lives in Connecticut with his wife and two kids and spends his time coaching his son’s baseball team, golfing with his daughter, and pursuing his never-ending quest to become a professional bowler. You can reach him at [email protected]