How to electrify trucking in the US, one step at a time

The Biden administration wants to promote electric long-haul trucks by focusing heavy-duty charging investments on key hubs and highways. Here’s the plan.
By Jeff St. John

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a teal semi truck attached to an EV charger in an industrial parking lot
A Volvo VNR Electric truck charges at the high-powered chargers available to fleets at a depot in California. (Volvo)

The U.S. doesn’t need massive truck charging depots on every major highway to meet federal climate goals. It just needs enough on the right highways — the ones where electric trucks are poised to take off the earliest — at the right time.

That’s why the Biden administration has launched a national strategy to identify the highest-priority freight hubs and corridors — and to get states, utilities and the truck manufacturing and freight-hauling industries on board.

Several research studies show that this approach can help manufacturers and freight companies comply with rules the Biden administration is expected to announce in the next few weeks for decarbonizing the nation’s trucking fleet.

The National Zero-Emission Freight Corridor Strategy is a critical piece of cleaning up transportation in the U.S. Heavy-duty trucks make up only 5 percent of vehicles on the road but are responsible for about a quarter of transportation emissions, which is itself the biggest category of emissions in the country.

The strategy, released last week, lays out a 15-year roadmap for developing the charging stations (and hydrogen fueling stations) needed to convert the country’s more than 20 million cargo vans, box trucks, short-haul and, eventually, long-haul semi trucks from fossil fuels. It starts with more than 30 freight hubs” — the circles on the map that encompass ports, train depots and other concentrations of freight traffic within roughly 100 miles of each other. That’s a range within which today’s battery-electric trucks have shown they can effectively operate on daily routes on a cost-competitive basis with diesel-fueled trucks.

Map of Phase 1 freight hub and corridor investments laid out in the National Zero-Emission Freight Corridor Strategy

The next phase will start connecting these hubs via designated roadways dubbed National EV Freight Corridors. These arteries will be targeted for the deployment of more charging and refueling infrastructure to enable increasingly longer routes that are starting to become possible with newer electric heavy-duty trucks and, eventually, the trucks traveling the hardest-to-electrify interstate and cross-country routes. 

Map of Phase 2 freight hub and corridor investments laid out in the National Zero-Emission Freight Corridor Strategy

The new strategy, released by the federal Joint Office of Energy and Transportation in partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency and the federal departments of Energy and Transportation, calls for an all-of-government approach to aligning investments and accelerating sustainable and scalable deployment of reliable” zero-emissions medium- and heavy-duty vehicle infrastructure.

That all-of-government” approach lines up with what the trucking and freight industries are demanding from the Biden administration, said Ray Minjares, heavy-duty vehicles program director at the International Council on Clean Transportation. Last year, the nonprofit research group published an analysis indicating that prioritizing early EV truck-charging investments in up to 10 key states, including California, Florida, Illinois and Ohio, can satisfy nearly half of the forecasted needs of zero-emissions trucks by 2030.

When I talk to truck manufacturers, what they tell me is, We don’t need infrastructure everywhere to max out production volumes we’ve got in place today,’” Minjares said. Instead, they’re looking for a buildout of charging infrastructure in those places where the business case is strongest.”

That view was echoed by nonprofit and industry groups reacting to last week’s launch of the Biden administration strategy.

We don’t need to build everything, everywhere, all at once,” Guillermo Ortiz, clean vehicles advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a prepared statement. This phased approach will allow our nation to electrify the largest number of trucks along the most-traveled highways.”

The central role of charging infrastructure in the EPA’s new clean-trucks rule

On the heels of releasing this national strategy to decarbonize trucking, the federal government also released its toughest-ever rules on emissions from trucking. The final rules, issued on March 29, tell the industry where it needs to go and how fast, while the new strategy helps give it the roadmap to getting there.

The EPA’s heavy-duty vehicle regulations, first proposed last April, will require increasingly lower emissions from manufacturers’ portfolios of trucks, buses and other large vehicles sold between 2027 and 2032. EPA said the rules will avoid up to 1 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions over 30 years and yield $13 billion in net benefits from fewer hospital visits, lost work days and deaths.

While truck manufacturers could improve the efficiency of fossil-fueled vehicles or introduce hydrogen-fueled vehicles to meet the standards, the rapid improvements in the cost and range of electric trucks make them the likely choice for manufacturers looking to comply.

Reducing truck emissions is vital for climate change and environmental justice. Beyond their carbon emissions, diesel-fueled heavy-duty vehicles also emit air pollution that disproportionately harms communities near ports, warehouses and highways, many of them populated by lower-income households and people of color. Three-quarters of heavy-duty truck traffic travels on just 4 percent of U.S. roads, jeopardizing the health of our most vulnerable communities,” Ali Zaidi, White House national climate advisor, noted in last week’s announcement.

But since it introduced the proposed rule last year, the Biden administration has faced pushback from the trucking and truck manufacturing industries. Much of it has been tied to fears of inadequate expansion of charging infrastructure to support the scope of the rule’s ambitions, which are aligned with the Biden administration’s goal of zero-emissions medium- and heavy-duty vehicles reaching 30 percent of total sales by 2030.

The Truck and Engine Manufacturers’ Association (EMA) and American Trucking Association trade groups had asked the EPA to push out to 2030 the deadlines for vehicles to comply with EPA’s rules. The groups had also asked the EPA to include an off-ramp” that would weaken the standards if infrastructure deployment targets aren’t met.

In an April 2023 statement, EMA President Jed Mandel said that adequate electricity charging and hydrogen fueling infrastructures is imperative — not only to power those vehicles so they can move the freight that fuels our economy, but also to give our customers the confidence to purchase ZEVs and retire their older, higher-emitting vehicles.”

Major truck manufacturers and EMA members Daimler Truck and Volvo Group — both of which have pledged to rapidly expand their production of electric heavy-duty trucks — also asked EPA to delay compliance deadlines, citing concerns about adequate charging infrastructure.

In its finalized rules, the Biden administration stuck to its proposed compliance timeline, which begins in 2027.

Last month, a subset of manufacturers including Ford, Cummins, BorgWarner and Eaton separated themselves from the EMA by issuing a statement of support for the EPA’s rule. But they also called on the Biden administration to undertake a whole of government approach’ to partner with private industry to meet the new EPA standards,” with a particular focus on electrification infrastructure.”

The new federal zero-emissions freight strategy helps respond to those infrastructure complaints,” Minjares said. 

How to decide where to put charging first

But the difficulty with creating a roadmap is determining where the starting points should be.

In December, Minjares and International Council on Clean Transportation researcher Yihao Xie published a blog post describing their work on determining where to focus first. Their analysis, done in consultation with companies in the freight and heavy-duty EV sectors, considered factors including high density of long-haul freight traffic, stronger economics for switching from diesel to electric trucks, and supportive public policy.

The map below shows how concentrating heavy-duty charging infrastructure investments in just three sets of roadways — in California, in the Pacific Northwest and in Texas — could provide enough charging to make it possible for long-haul truck manufacturers to meet the EPA’s 2030 targets.

Maximizing charging along these three corridors could enable 9 million average daily zero-emission vehicle miles traveled,” or eVMT — a metric that encompasses both the number of vehicles and how far they drive, which more accurately conveys the emissions-reduction impact, Minjares explained. That equates to one out of every 10 long-haul truck miles logged on these routes by 2030

Map of transit routes to prioritize for electric truck charging to meet federal transport decarbonization goals
Map showing three priority areas for truck-charging infrastructure. (ICCT)

That’s just the starting point for early-stage investments to spur more rapid adoption of electric trucks, however. Minjares and Xie estimated that tax credits and incentives from the Inflation Reduction Act could spur the cost-effective switch from diesel to electric of twice as much long-haul freight — 18 million daily eVMT — as the EPA rule would require across the country by 2030. They then expanded their route analysis to find the best traffic corridors — the smallest number of roads with the highest traffic volume” — to focus charging infrastructure spending on to support that volume of electric truck-miles, yielding the map below. 

International Council on Clean Transportation map of highways that need heavy-duty truck charging to support Paris goals

Minjares noted that this map includes states with aggressive zero-emissions trucking mandates, such as California, as well as those that lack them, such as Texas. A national strategy can help bridge the gaps in cost and uptake between different states, he said — and help ensure that the interstate highways that connect them are considered as a whole, not in a state-by-state fashion.

The International Council on Clean Transportation is one of many groups studying how to prioritize how much charging should be deployed in which locations — decisions the national strategy has not yet made. But it’s likely that plans that focus investment in a handful of corridors could run into political challenges from states that feel left out of the federal funding if they’re not included.

At the same time, it’s important that the federal strategy is focusing on the hubs first,” he said. The vast majority of early electric-truck adopters are private depots building charging at their own warehouses,” or companies developing electric truck-charging hubs designed to serve multiple customers driving daily routes at first, then longer-haul routes in the future.

What has to happen next 

To be clear, the Biden administration’s announcement last week left many questions unanswered, including how it would take the next steps with state governments, truck manufacturers, fleet operators and charging providers to start to plan its approach to prioritizing its efforts across the hubs and corridors identified. Nor did it specify how much federal funding it expects to allocate to the effort.

The federal government’s biggest block of funding for EV charging — the $5 billion in state National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure program grants created by 2021’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law — has concentrated on EV charging for passenger vehicles along highways.

Another $2.5 billion in funding from that law is available for grants to support charging in disadvantaged and sparsely populated communities, as well as for heavy-duty freight corridors. In January, the administration approved $623 million in grants from this program to 47 applicants in 22 states and Puerto Rico, including several large-scale truck charging projects in California, Texas and other states.

It’s a pressing thing to figure out, though, as the transition won’t be cheap: A new report from the Clean Freight Coalition trade group estimates that it will cost roughly $620 billion to fully electrify the country’s commercial truck fleet over the coming two decades.

Another important open question is how this federal strategy will coordinate the expansion of electric-truck charging depots with the utilities that will supply the megawatts of power they’ll need. That’s a major potential stumbling block, given that it can take months to more than a year for utilities to build and expand power grid capacity to serve them.

Britta Gross, transportation director at the nonprofit power-sector research group Electric Power Research Institute, noted that she’s meeting regularly with Joint Office representatives on an EPRI-led initiative that’s helping freight companies and charging providers share data with utilities to plan ahead for these grid-expansion needs.

The simple act of the federal government designating National EV Freight Corridors is a useful start, she said, since it indicates how they expect the corridors to be built out [and] where there’s more bang for the buck in investment. I always think that putting a stake in the ground and saying, This is where we’re going to be going,’ is a good way to help.”

Dawn Fenton, vice president of public affairs for Volvo Group North America and board chair of Powering America’s Commercial Transportation, a consortium launched in January to speed electric-truck charging infrastructure deployment, highlighted the pressure on utilities, government agencies and private industry to move quickly to meet the coming demand for charging. International Council on Clean Transportation forecasts estimate that the U.S. will need nearly 600,000 high-speed chargers to serve medium- and heavy-duty vehicles by 2030.

If we’re going to meet the deadlines that policymakers have put in place, there needs to be a different way of doing things,” Fenton said. Usually utilities won’t build out the capacity and service until the demand exists — but if that remains the case, there’s the chicken-and-egg problem. […] There are customers who are canceling orders when they learn about how long the wait for charging infrastructure is.”

Note: This story has been updated on 3/29/24 to reflect the release of the EPA’s new emissions rules for heavy-duty trucks.

Jeff St. John is director of news and special projects at Canary Media. He covers innovative grid technologies, rooftop solar and batteries, clean hydrogen, EV charging and more.