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Experts: The Heavy-Duty Vehicle Sector Is Primed for Growth

Cheaper batteries, a changing regulatory landscape and more models are all helping to grow a nascent electric-vehicle industry serving heavy-duty trucking and even farming, industry watchers say.

A digital rendering of an electric truck at a charging station.
Heavy-duty trucking and farming all seem to be on the way to becoming a lot cleaner. New technologies and new interest in electric trucks, farm equipment and other heavy-duty battery-electric-powered vehicles is driving the sector at a speed not seen in decades, industry observers say. 

“Climate change, I think, is becoming more and more believable,” said Steve Heckeroth, CEO and founder for Solectrac, a maker of electric tractors, speaking on a virtual panel last week at the 2021 Cleantech Forum.

“Especially with what’s happening today, I think going forward, we’re going to make our decisions on facts rather than on speculation,” Heckeroth added, in a clear reference to the Biden administration.

One of Biden’s first actions as president was to rejoin the Paris Agreement, a pledge by nations to lower greenhouse gases. Former President Donald Trump rejected the United States’ participation in the accord and was often at odds with the science community in areas such as climate change and the novel coronavirus crisis. 

Battery technologies and costs are probably doing more to accelerate the development of electric heavy-duty vehicles like trucks and buses — but also fire engines, garbage trucks and farm tractors — than almost any other variable, speakers said. 

“The size of the battery, the cost of the battery has been prohibitive for most, whether it’s a passenger car or a truck. It’s been cost prohibitive. And now we’re starting to get to the points where we see the cost of the battery power coming down to make it commercially viable,” said Alfred Poor, CEO of Ideanomics, a company working to facilitate the adoption of EVs by commercial fleets. 

The move toward electric trucks is also being urged along by public policy, namely the action taken by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), which has put in place new rules to transition the trucking industry in the state to become zero-emission in the coming decades. 

“I am sure our regulatory efforts have made some difference,” said Tony Brasil, branch chief for California Air Resources Board, during the panel. “We do believe that some of the manufactures who had electric vehicles in other countries were motivated to hopefully bring them here, given the certainty we’re providing to the market.”

Though the heavy-duty EV market seems to be taking off, it is still nascent and in need of support, advocates said, urging the need for subsidies, infrastructure development and financing mechanisms specifically designed for electric fleets.

Another barrier to adoption is having the available vehicles. If you ordered a truck today, it would not likely arrive until 2022, said Michael Roeth, executive director for North American Council for Freight Efficiency.

On farms, the sun can power a lot more than just plant growth, said Heckeroth, as he advocated for solar roofs on barns and electric farm equipment, which can translate into much cleaner air for farm workers. 

“With solar being so inexpensive, and there being room on farms, and in rural areas, where tractors are used, I think barriers are less demanding than they are in the urban areas,” said Heckeroth. 

“I think we’ll be able to convince farmers, if they look at the lifecycle costs, rather than just the first cost,” he added. “And we can get them the financing they need to spread that first cost out over the period of use that they use the tractors, I think we can go head-to-head with diesel right now.”   

An electric tractor pilot project recently launched in rural Oregon, where three e-tractors will be tested and used by local farmers to not only showcase the technology, but allow the farming industry to understand how to fit the tractors into various farming applications. 

“I don’t see any barriers … It’s really just a mindset that we’ve been stuck with for the last 100, 120 years, that fossil fuel is the only thing to use,” Heckeroth remarked.

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.
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