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Heavy-Duty Truck Electrification Is Still an Uncharted Path

Public policy aimed at reducing greenhouse gases and other pollutants is pulling heavy-duty trucking forward in states across the West, as a 100-year-old industry evolves away from heavily polluting vehicles.

Concept image of a large electric truck charging.
The electrification of the heavy-duty trucking and similar transportation sectors continues to evolve, pushed and pulled by public policy, technology cost and partnerships with utilities.

“Infrastructure is the No. 1 barrier to the ZEV [zero-emissions vehicle] transition, especially as you get into medium- and heavy-duty [sectors],” said Andrea Pratt, zero-emission technology program director for Volvo Group North America.

The charging infrastructure can be both expensive and include drawn out development times, further complicating a fleet’s transition to electric vehicles.

“We have contractors that have the capacity to install chargers that’s higher than the ability for utilities to connect up to the grid at that scale,” said Per Lundmark, project manager of the Low Carbon Fuel Standard team at clean-energy consulting firm GNA, noting the need for additional substations and other infrastructure.

“It takes time for utilities to scale up and support that deployment of those technologies,” said Lundmark. “And I think the takeaway from that is we will see utilities scale up.”

And then, of course, the cost of the vehicles themselves can generate some sticker shock.

“I think that you’re seeing a commitment across the board to sustainability, and to supporting the transition to ZEVs. But once you get into the business of doing that, you recognize, there’s some significant costs,” said Pratt.

“The reality is these zero-emission trucks — battery-electric trucks specifically — are very expensive; batteries are expensive. We were expecting costs to go down, and we’re not really seeing that quite yet. Although we do anticipate that will happen eventually,” she added.

If fleet operators want to pump the brakes on transitioning to ZEVs, the public policy does not. California has set clear benchmarks for taking internal combustion engine (ICE) trucks off of the state's highways by 2040. Similar moves are being adopted by other states on the West Coast and in the Northeast.

These states are also taking up low-carbon fuel standards, first adopted by California. The policy — known as LCFS for short — creates requirements as well as incentives to remove the “carbon intensity” of fuel. This can take the form of transitioning to electrification, certainly, but also by introducing fuels with less greenhouse gas intensity like so-called renewable diesel, often derived from plants like soy or corn or tallow from rendering facilities.

“The California LCFS standard was designed with that intention of export to other states, as a way to drive low-carbon innovation across jurisdictions, and more broadly, across the market,” said Lundmark. “And so, we are seeing that as other states adopt low-carbon fuel standards.”

Similarly, the Advanced Clean Fleets Rule is also driving technologies in trucking, and creating a market for electrification.

“The sense of urgency is certainly high in California,” said Lundmark, as he contrasted the public policy that has evolved from offering a carrot — in the form of credits in exchange for transitioning to lower carbon intensity fuels — to a stick, where the state is set to penalize operators that do not comply with set benchmarks.

“Much like we’ve seen the export of the California Low-Carbon Fuel Standard, we will also see export of some other more stringent regulation,” he added.

It’s not yet clear where the technology for truck electrification will lead. Both battery-electric technology and hydrogen fuel cells are nearly developing alongside each other. Daimler and Volvo are working jointly on a hydrogen-powered heavy-duty truck that will not likely be released until later in the decade.

The development of charging facilities near ports seems to suggest trucks operating regionally — like drayage trucks — will develop as battery-electric vehicles. Whereas long-haul trucking could be better served by hydrogen fuel cell technology, due to its longer range.

“I think long-haul is one of those hard-to-electrify segments that folks are really looking to hydrogen to fill that gap,” said Pratt. “I think the economics are going to bear this out in the long term.”

What is clear is the monumental shift occurring in both the transportation and utilities sectors as electricity becomes the central player in the movement of goods.

“We’re looking at a 100-year paradigm shift on the OEM side, but also on the utility side,” said Pratt.
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 Yreka, Calif.