Newsletter: Electric trucking is coming sooner than you think

The shipping industry tested EV trucks and thinks they’re ready to go, like, now.

A Roush Cleantech battery electric truck (Run on Less by NACFE)
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I’ve lost track of the number of times clean energy has been accused of being incapable of performing a certain task, but then does it anyway.

Conventional wisdom holds that battery-powered vehicles could work for some passenger cars but that trucking is too intense to run on batteries. The distances traversed on most long-haul routes still surpass the current range capabilities of battery technology. But it turns out there are millions of truck routes that electric trucks are ready to replace today.

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A freight industry field test of electric medium- and heavy-duty trucks just concluded that 5.2 million of these vehicles could switch to electric today without concern about battery range or ability to complete the route, Jeff St. John reports.

Switching all 5.2 million of these trucks to electric could slash about 100 million metric tons of carbon emissions from the U.S. trucking sector’s annual total of just under 450 million metric tons. The switch could also make even bigger cuts to emissions of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter that are harmful to human health.

Believing that a major chunk of the truck population can go electric is the first step to actually doing it. But there’s a lot of work left to do:

  • Electric truck models are still really new on the market, and many haven’t made it into production yet. Trucking companies need options and time to get to know and trust the new vehicles. (I got to test-drive Volvo’s brand-new electric truck on a Nascar speedway back in 2020; you can read about it here.)
  • Hardly any U.S. trucks are electric right now, so it will take time to convert the fleet.
  • The cumulative effect on the grid from electrifying 5.2 million trucks would be immense.

That last point is crucial. You can charge a few trucks at a shipping depot without much hassle. But lining up chargers for dozens of trucks at the same time triggers the need for upgrades to the grid to deliver enough power.

In fact, if the proposed 5.2 million trucks switched to electric, their annual power consumption would add up to about 5 percent of annual U.S. electricity production today. I’m still trying to wrap my head around that.

In short: Don’t let the naysayers tell you that electric vehicles can’t handle heavy freight. They can. And in a few years, they’ll be able to do it cheaper than the incumbents.

But if a grid wonk tells you the hang-up will ultimately be the speed with which utilities and local governments approve and build charging infrastructure, that’s a nuanced and fact-based critique that’s worth taking seriously.

Like, very seriously

Jeff’s been on a roll like a fully loaded electric semi cruising down I-80 out of Tahoe. On top of the trucking news, he also published a story on how New York City’s early efforts to electrify transportation reveal just how tricky the charging infrastructure will be.

This is a global problem, as Christian Levin, CEO of Volkswagen-owned truck manufacturer Scania, stated in a Tuesday panel at this week’s Climate Week NYC event. When he talks to companies that are worried about switching to EVs,​“it’s not the vehicles” that are holding them back, he said.​“It’s the charging. We need to start to invest heavily into charging infrastructure, [and] we need…help from policymakers.” 

But the EV charging build-out is also an intensely local challenge, as the experience of Revel and other developers in New York City indicates. It involves costly and complex work to extend power lines, install transformers and manage new grid loads. 

Revel is the startup that just built the largest hub of fully public fast chargers in the country — 25 chargers, tucked into Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood at the site of an old pharmaceutical factory.

That location already had access to a lot of power. But Revel wants to build 15 or 20 more superhubs” in the Big Apple, and finding adequate sites to do so will almost certainly induce massive headaches.

  • New York already faces constrained parking options. Finding parking spaces that also can receive an influx of electricity is even harder.
  • New York’s grid is already pretty saturated, meaning that many transformers and substations can’t handle significant new charging demand without an upgrade.

This sort of thing will take a lot of dull procedural work to sort out. The prize, in the end, will be cleaner air, major carbon reductions and a more modern and efficient grid. But it’s not going to be quick or easy.

Dave Mullaney, a principal at nonprofit think tank RMI’s Carbon-Free Mobility team, elucidated the scale of the project by comparison to Shenzhen, the largely electrified tech hub in Southern China:

We need to think much bigger. Revel just built New York’s largest charging superhub with 25 charging plugs. A mega-charging hub in Shenzhen has 500. […] We’re going to have enormous industrial-scale loads popping up in dense neighborhoods. We have to be thinking about what we need to do in the next 10 to 15 years to get there.”

If that sounds daunting, at least the anecdote also shows this can be done — because someone has already done it. 

Julian Spector is an editor at Canary Media and reports on the rise of clean energy. He worked at Greentech Media for nearly five years, and before that he reported for CityLab at The Atlantic.