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3 ways the new climate law will help clean up dirty US ports

The Inflation Reduction Act includes $3 billion to slash pollution from ports by electrifying machinery, plugging ships into the grid and more.

Dockworkers in safety gear move cargo containers at an industrial facility
A busy terminal at the Port of Los Angeles (Port of Los Angeles)
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America’s ports are busier than ever this year. Historic levels of goods are flowing into the country, and supply-chain snafus continue causing congestion along the U.S. coastline. The diesel-burning machines and vehicles that hoist, haul and ferry away our endless streams of stuff are working overtime — spewing more air pollution into nearby neighborhoods and generating planet-warming emissions.

The surge in cargo activity is putting renewed pressure on port operators and state regulators to clean up maritime hubs. Environmental groups and residents of port-adjacent communities are urging officials to hasten the electrification of polluting onshore equipment and take steps to reduce emissions from visiting cargo ships.

Now, with an unprecedented amount of federal climate and energy funding set to start flowing, port officials will have the chance to accelerate such initiatives.

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The Inflation Reduction Act, which Biden signed into law in mid-August, includes $3 billion to reduce air pollution and advance zero-emissions technology in ports. Another $1 billion allotted for heavy-duty vehicles could help electrify the drayage trucks that carry cargo containers. That’s on top of the $17 billion provided in last year’s infrastructure law for upgrading ports and crucial waterways.

Ditching diesel fuel in ports would help slash greenhouse gases at a time when the global shipping industry’s emissions are rising, driven by growing consumer demand. It would also reduce the amount of nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and other health-harming pollutants that workers and neighbors inhale. More than 39 million people in the United States live within 3 miles of a port or freight hub, the majority of whom are low-income residents and people of color.

Curbing port pollution means tackling many disparate sources that operate in distinct ways. Here are three of the more immediate solutions that ports can implement to clean up their operations, experts told Canary Media.

1) Electrify the box-shuffling machines

When cargo ships arrive at shore, an orchestra of equipment is deployed to move steel shipping boxes from ship decks to the beds of trucks and trains. Mighty off-road vehicles called top handlers pluck containers weighing up to 100,000 pounds and move them around the port. Rubber-tired gantry cranes, which resemble giant sawhorses, stack containers like Lego bricks. Yard trucks, forklifts and other machines zip around, belching fumes as they go.

The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which together comprise the nation’s largest shipping hub, are working on converting all their cargo-handling equipment to zero-emissions technologies by 2030. As part of that effort, the ports are set to test some 200 pieces of equipment in the next few years, including not just forklifts and tractors but also battery-powered locomotives and electric tugboats. 

The problem is that a lot of zero-emissions technologies are still early in their development. You can’t go down to the dealer and buy them,” said Chris Cannon, director of environmental management for the Port of Los Angeles. So a lot of what we do is serve as a test bed for zero-emissions technologies and help demonstrate to the manufacturers that a market exists.”

He noted that, in 2020, the Los Angeles port began testing two of the world’s first electric top handlers, both of which have 1-megawatt batteries and are designed to operate for two entire shifts — up to 18 hours consecutively — between charges.

A red heavy-duty vehicle uses a crane mechanism to move large green cargo containers
A battery-powered top handler lifts a cargo container in a 2020 demonstration. (Port of Los Angeles)

Converting heavy-duty machinery to use battery power or hydrogen fuel cells can mean having to significantly expand the port’s electricity distribution system or build new fueling infrastructure. In some cases, ports need to reinforce concrete to support the additional weight of batteries. Workers who drive and operate the equipment also need retraining to learn how to safely use the diesel-free alternatives.

Experts point out two big reasons for prioritizing the decarbonization of cargo-handling equipment. First, although the category contributes a relatively small share of the industry’s total emissions, the vehicles and machines still pose a significant threat to air quality because they operate in one location around the clock, often close to people’s homes. Second, the equipment is easier to electrify than, say, giant oil-guzzling cargo ships — and in California, state funding is already available to help ports make the switch.

Whereas oceangoing vessels are a harder-to-abate source, for cargo-handling equipment, it’s something we can do right now,” said Fern Uennatornwaranggoon, the Oakland-based air quality policy manager for the Environmental Defense Fund. (The organization declined to comment directly on the Inflation Reduction Act.) 

2) Plug ships into shore power

Another relatively straightforward fix is allowing cargo ships to connect to the electric grid. Many vessels run auxiliary engines to keep their lights and communications equipment running while at berth, pumping diesel exhaust into surrounding areas. Increasingly, though, ships are cutting their engines and hooking up to what are essentially giant high-voltage electrical plugs.

The most deployable technology to protect port communities from ship pollution — the largest source of pollution at all major U.S. trading ports — is shore power electrification for ships,” said Antonio Santos, the federal climate policy director for Pacific Environment.

In California, container, cruise and other types of vessels are required to use shoreside electricity supplies or other emissions-control technologies once they’ve docked. The state’s at-berth” regulation has helped reduce harmful emissions by 80 percent since 2014, according to the California Air Resources Board, which set the policy.

Yet plenty of other U.S. ports still need to install charging infrastructure or upgrade electricity systems so that ships can draw megawatts’ worth of power. Even in California, some oceangoing vessels still don’t plug in because the ships themselves don’t have the right equipment. Uennatornwaranggoon said connection rates at the Port of Oakland aren’t as high as she and other community advocates would like. In April, for instance, nearly two-thirds of visiting vessels successfully drew shore power, but the remaining one-third weren’t equipped to connect.

And, as California recently learned, giant plugs can’t always reach ships in the harbor. Last year, record congestion near the coast of Southern California led to abnormally high numbers of container vessels idling offshore and running their auxiliary engines. The congestion drove spikes in cancer-causing particulate matter and smog-forming nitrogen oxides, which can damage people’s lungs and trigger asthma symptoms.

State regulators say they are evaluating ways to reduce emissions from anchored vessels, including potentially by deploying barges mounted with fuel cells that ships can plug into. Globally, efforts are underway to build floating charging hubs near offshore wind farms, enabling ships to plug into the bobbing mooring buoys that are tied to wind turbines via underwater cables.

3) Make plans, get paid

California’s chronic air-quality issues and resulting regulations mean that major ports in the Golden State have already created strategies for reducing emissions and adopting cleaner technologies. But most ports elsewhere have not.

The Inflation Reduction Act provides funding for ports to develop qualified climate action plans,” as well as to carry out any planning or permitting associated with adopting zero-emissions technology. Santos of Pacific Environment said that ports should create plans and set mandatory policies to have a better shot at accessing federal dollars earmarked for ports.

We hope these funds light a fire under major port states like New York, New Jersey, Texas, Washington, South Carolina, Georgia — and beyond — to say, Hey, we can’t miss this moment,’” he said. Let’s get our policy framework in order locally to make sure we win this funding for our communities.”

The new climate and tax law won’t be enough to fully fund the zero-emissions transition at the nation’s ports. Cannon, from the Port of Los Angeles, estimated it could cost $8.4 billion to replace all of the 21,000 drayage trucks that carry cargo in and out of the maritime hub. Replacing the port’s tugboat fleet could cost as much as $500 million. In general, much of the additional funding will likely come from state budgets, port authorities — and the companies that own and operate all the trucks, trains and ships that keep the nation’s economy humming.

Maria Gallucci is a clean energy reporter at Canary Media, where she covers hard-to-decarbonize sectors and efforts to make the energy transition more affordable and equitable.