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Volvo: Infrastructure remains biggest roadblock for electric trucks

 Photo Credit: Shutterstock
Photo Credit: Shutterstock

There’s plenty of electricity out there to accommodate heavy-duty trucks and there’s more political pressure than ever to move toward renewable energy. But according to one of world’s biggest heavy-duty truck makers, the bottleneck is going to be paying for and installing the infrastructure to power the market.

“We’ve been experimenting with natural gas, where you have to install compression stations costing hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Susan Alt, vice president of public affairs for Volvo North America, told FreightWaves during the annual conference of NATSO, the truck stop owners’ association, in Orlando earlier this month.

“Multiply that cost times 10 for an electric station for cars, and even more for trucks because they need more energy faster, and you can understand why it’s going to be the infrastructure that will slow things down.”

To help make inroads to the energy storage issue, Alt referred to an investment made in January by subsidiary Volvo Group Venture Capital AB. It invested in Momentum Dynamics, a Philadelphia-based wireless charging company for commercial electric vehicles.

Wireless electric charging allows any type of vehicle to automatically connect to the electrical power grid without wires or cables. The technology means there’s no need for a driver to plug in to a charging station. It makes more efficient use of battery capacity while enabling longer driving distances.

“If you can imagine if the infrastructure allowed for the truck to be continually recharging while it’s driving down the road,” Alt said. “We want to learn more about how that can work.”

Fuel retailers could have a part to play as an infrastructure provider as well. The chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Neil Chatterjee, met with NATSO leaders during their meeting to discuss the potential for truck stop operators to get into the electricity-generating game.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are preparing to discuss how federal infrastructure policy can address climate change – with plenty of discussion likely around the Democrat’s Green New Deal, and how electric vehicles can move the transportation sector towards zero emissions.

But John Eichberger, executive director at The Fuels Institute, a Washington, D.C. non-profit that evaluates issues affecting vehicles and fuels, warned at NATSO that “we’re not trying to achieve the electrification of the transportation sector, we’re trying to reduce emissions to benefit consumers.” Adjusting that message, “especially in the political world, is going to be extremely difficult,” he said.

Eichberger acknowledged the infrastructure hurdles to electrification as a path towards zero emissions. But he also pointed out the challenges that remain on the vehicle side as well, particularly with battery-electric trucks.

“In terms of getting the power-to-weight ratio to carry heavy loads using the existing technology, batteries don’t have power we need to make that happen,” he said. “We’re going to have to change battery technology going forward, so maybe eventually they can provide opportunities. But right now we’ve got pretty high skepticism this is going to be viable.”

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John Gallagher, Washington Correspondent

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.