How Fast Can California Switch From Diesel-Burning Freight Trucks To Electric Big Rigs?

How Fast Can California Switch From Diesel-Burning Freight Trucks To Electric Big Rigs?

An electric freight truck charges its batteries next to an electric car at TransPower, which designs and installs zero-emission freight motors and drive trains, on Tuesday in Escondido, California. (Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

In a warehouse in Escondido on a February afternoon, mechanics installed electric motors, drivetrains and batteries in a row of white Peterbuilt freight trucks.

They’re known as “yard goats,” said Joshua Goldman, vice president of sales and marketing for TransPower, one of a handful of companies in California developing electric powertrains for heavy-duty vehicles.

Businesses, backed with state funding, have in recent years started piloting such cargo-handling equipment at ports, rail yards and distribution centers around California. Such electrified trucks, forklifts and cranes move goods short distances, never straying too far from charging stations.

Now the race is on to roll out the first battery-powered big rigs — a move aimed at not only curbing greenhouse gases but harmful air pollution that overwhelmingly impacts low-income neighborhoods from Oakland to Long Beach to Barrio Logan.

Experts disagree on how fast the state will see widespread adoption of electric trucks that can travel hundreds of miles on a single charge. While estimates have ranged from several years to more than a decade, competition among truck manufacturers now seems to be ratcheting up fast.

How Fast Can California Switch From Diesel-Burning Freight Trucks To Electric Big Rigs?

Alejandro Flores (left) and James Torres prepare to install an electric motor as they assemble a Peterbilt truck (background) in February at a TransPower warehouse in Escondido, California. (Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Telsa is expected to start delivering a handful of electric long-haul trucks by 2020, with companies such as Daimler, Volvo and Peterbuilt following close behind.

“The big news on electrification is how much more feasible it’s gotten with Daimler and Tesla introducing some electric truck options that seem like they can do the job,” said Ethan Elkind, a researcher at UC Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy and the Environment who has been studying the issue closely.

“They are expensive still, but this is something that a year ago we wouldn’t even have been talking about,” he added.

Diesel-powered freight operations account for roughly half of the state’s toxic air pollution, notably nitrogen oxide and fine particulate matter, according to state regulators. Health experts have said that reining in those emissions could dramatically reduce rates of asthma, heart disease and cancer.

While moving to zero-emission cargo equipment could save billions in health-care costs annually, it could also put economic pressure on the freight sector, which employs roughly a third of the state’s workforce.

“It’s a large transformation we’re talking about,” said Chris Shimoda, vice president of government affairs for the California Trucking Association. “We’re talking about a complete buildout of electric charging infrastructure. I think everyone’s invested in making sure this goes the right way.”

Still, transitioning to electric vehicles could eventually make financial sense for many companies regardless of state regulations, Shimoda said. “As the technology keeps improving, we may get the point where this is the rational business decision.”

What about diesel?

Diesel engines have become dramatically cleaner over the last two decades, according to the California Air Resources Board. Regulations and technological advances have resulted in new heavy-duty diesel engines that are more than 97 percent cleaner than those built in 1990.

Rather than focusing on electrifying fleets, advocates for diesel power have said the state should work harder to phase out older freight trucks.

The nonprofit trade group Diesel Technology Forum estimates that only 29 percent of the state’s commercial diesel trucks are equipped with the latest technology, compared to a national average of 36 percent.

“There’s a danger in saying, ‘We’re going to electrify all these trucks in the port and all our problems will be solved,’” said Allen Schaeffer, the group’s executive director. “When you step back and say what’s delivering clean-air progress in California today, the answer has to be turnover of the old generation of diesel technology to the newest generation.”

Air board officials have said the agency is addressing both issues at the same time, pointing to regulations that require diesel-truck fleets to increasingly adopt the latest technology. According to the agency, about 70 percent of the most toxic air pollution from on-road vehicles in California comes from heavy-duty diesel vehicles.

The agency estimates that nearly all trucks in California will be required to have model year engines of 2010 or newer by 2023. Regulators said the reason the state’s fleet looks older than the national average is many drivers register their vehicles in states with cheaper fees, while trucks in California also last longer because of the mild winters.

How Fast Can California Switch From Diesel-Burning Freight Trucks To Electric Big Rigs?

Tenants at the Tenth Avenue Terminal at Port of San Diego have started to purchase electric freight equipment in effort to clean up the air in port-side communities such as Barrio Logan and National City. (John Gastaldo / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Pressure to electrify

While freight businesses, such as those at the Port of San Diego, have started to purchase electric forklifts, cranes and short-range trucks, environmental-justice advocates have called on businesses to ramp up and expand those efforts.

“It’s great that they have cargo-handling equipment, but the trucks are not being electrified yet,” said Diane Takvorian, executive director of the San Diego-based Environmental Health Coalition, who also sits on the California Air Resources Board. “The Port (of San Diego) isn’t putting in or applying for the electrification infrastructure yet.”

Much like the air board’s rules for public buses that aim to transition transit agencies to all-electric fleets by 2040, regulators are now gearing up to consider similar rules for truck manufactures and commercial fleets by the end of this year.

Port and rail officials have tried to pump the breaks on expectation around purchasing expensive and often experimental battery-powered freight technology.

“They’re saying we want more trucks, and we’re pushing back a little bit saying the technology is not quite there yet,” said Job Nelson, assistant vice president of government and civic relations at the Port of San Diego. “It’s very much in demonstration mode. They can only go 50 or 150 miles, and then you have to plug in for 8 hours. If you’re a trucker that’s not an ideal situation.”

Regulators have said that pollution from freight operations will have to be cut for California to meet its ambitious goals to slash greenhouse gases 40 percent by 2030. The sector currently accounts for six percent of the state’s climate-warming emission.

Air board officials said they are trying to strike a balance between what’s technologically possible and what’s financially feasible for businesses.

“As we develop rules that impact truck manufactures and fleets, we look at economic impact and cost,” said Kim Heroy-Rogalski, chief of the air board’s mobile source regulatory development branch. “If you were just worried about air pollution, you would say everyone has to use electric tomorrow. But because it has trickledown effects in the economy, you have to be careful.”

The California Energy Commission and air board have spent more than $450 million since 2004 in grants and other programs to help boost the transition to zero-emission technologies.

That’s money that companies such as TransPower have taken advantage of.

“This is stepping toward the future,” Goldman said, pointing to a battery-powered big rig parked at the warehouse in Escondido.

Behind him, workers connected a complicated maze of blue hoses and orange power lines as they lowered a zero-emission motor suspended on a hook onto a chassis where a diesel engine would traditionally sit.

“We’re going to have one of these semi-trucks operating this summer between the 10th Avenue Terminal at the Port of San Diego and a regional yard just down the street in National City,” he said.

How Fast Can California Switch From Diesel-Burning Freight Trucks To Electric Big Rigs?

The factory floor at TransPower in Escondido, California, which makes battery-powered freight equipment. (Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

What’s the hold up?

Technically speaking, the technology to haul heavy cargo using electric vehicles is available today, even for massive 18-wheelers.

However, loading a truck up with enough batteries to travel hundreds of miles on a charge, would require scaling back how much a truck can carry or exceeding weight limits. Without running afoul of the law, companies would lose out on revenue from moving the smaller loads.

That means batteries will have to get more efficient before they make financial sense for many commercial fleets, said John Gerra, director of business development for BYD North American, which builds battery-electric buses and other heavy-duty vehicles.

“Energy density is continuously increasing,” he said, “but it’s going to be a number of years before we see trucks doing 300 to 500 miles on one charge.

“I would say that long-range will be prevalent by 2025,” he added.

However, changes in the industry could evolve to accommodate the current limits of the battery technology. For example, trucking companies may increasingly employ on a relay system where drivers only move goods between regional storage facilities .

This could not only help usher in battery-powered freight transportation, but better meet the needs of truck drivers, said Elkind, with UC Berkeley. “A lot of these trucking companies are not even doing long haul anymore because truckers want to sleep in their beds every night.”

While the cost of electric trucks is more expensive, commercial fleet operators are expected to recoup their investments over time. With fewer moving parts, the vehicles are projected to require less maintenance, and while there are concerns about the fluctuating cost of electricity, recharging is expected to be cheaper than fueling up at the pump.