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California sees electric trucks as the future of freight transportation

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Neri Diaz believed he was ready for a crucial turning point in California’s ambitious plans, closely watched in other states and around the world, to phase out diesel trucks.

His company, Harbor Pride Logistics, acquired 14 electric trucks this year to operate alongside 32 diesel vehicles, in anticipation of a rule that diesel rigs can no longer be added to the list of vehicles approved to move cargo. goods in and out of California ports. But in August, the maker of Mr. Diaz’s electric vehicles, Nikola, took back the trucks as part of a recall, saying it would return them in the first quarter of the new year.

“This is brand new technology, first generation, so I knew things were going to happen, but I didn’t expect all 14 of my trucks to be taken over,” he said. “This has a significant impact on my operations.”

The rule was set to take effect early in the new year, but California’s Air Resources Board said Thursday it would not begin enforcing it until it received approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. the environment.

Road transportation, a considerable source of carbon emissions, is where California’s green revolution is facing some of its biggest challenges. Electric trucks, with their huge batteries, can cost more than $400,000, and they can’t make long trips without stopping for long charging periods, which can hurt a fleet’s economics. trucks.

But California sees port trucks as an opportunity to take a big step forward.

Electric trucks currently on the market can travel from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach – the nation’s busiest hub for container freight – to many inland warehouses without stopping to recharge. And cleaning up port trucks could have a big impact. With some 30,000 trucks registered at ports, the introduction of green vehicles could lead to a substantial reduction in carbon emissions and particles that can cause illness in the communities trucks pass through.

Nancy Gonzalez and her 25-year-old son Juan, who has Down syndrome and rheumatoid arthritis, live in the Wilmington neighborhood just north of the ports. Huge rigs coming and going from nearby truck parks constantly roar within a few feet of the house.

Truck traffic became much heavier about four years ago, Ms. Gonzalez said, and now she cleans twice a day to get rid of the dirt she produces. Ms. Gonzalez says she has sinus problems and her son’s eyes started watering about two years ago.

“No one opens their windows,” she said in Spanish through an interpreter. “Person.”

California hopes its tough rules, combined with financial support (truck purchase subsidies from state agencies can be as much as $288,000 per vehicle, according to operators), will help incentivize truckers , automakers, warehouse owners, utilities and charging companies to make the investments needed to create a decarbonized port truck sector by 2035, when all diesel trucks will be banned from ports. And the ports’ success could help the state meet its goal of decarbonizing all types of road transportation over the next two decades and serve as a model for similar efforts in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Oregon and Washington.

“In the long run, I’m confident we can decarbonize the heavy-duty truck sector,” said James Sallee, a professor in the department of agriculture and resource economics at the University of California, Berkeley, referring to California’s plan. . “But I don’t know if the industry is ready to overcome the various obstacles to rapid deployment.”

Port fleets have barely begun their transformation.

As of November, 180 electric trucks, or just 1% of the total, were registered to operate at the Port of Los Angeles. There was a single truck powered by hydrogen fuel cells, the other technology used to power the big rigs.

Some truck operators say they stockpiled diesel trucks and registered them with ports before the new rule took effect, although this does not show up in port statistics. In November, 20,083 diesel trucks had access to the Port of Los Angeles, compared to 21,310 a year earlier.

Large companies, with considerable financial resources and large facilities, are best placed to make the ecological transition. Mike Gallagher, a California-based executive at Maersk, the Danish shipping giant, said the company has an all-electric fleet, including some 85 vehicles made by Volvo and BYD, the Chinese automaker, to transport goods up to 50 miles out of ports. from Southern California. And it has worked with owners to install dozens of chargers in its depots.

“We are way ahead of the curve,” he said.

But smaller trucking fleets do most of the port travel – making up about 70 percent of the Port of Los Angeles – and they will struggle to make the transition. The California Trucking Association has filed a federal lawsuit against the state’s trucking rules, including one focused on port trucks, saying they represent “a vast overbreadth that threatens the safety and predictability of the national freight transport industry.

Matt Schrap, chief executive of the Harbor Trucking Association, another trade group, said the harbor truck rules lack exemptions that would help small businesses survive the transformation. Access to chargers is particularly difficult for small fleets, he said: “They are expensive and truck fleet owners may be reluctant to install them, forcing operators to rely on a charging system public which has just been built.

“The owner tells me, ‘There’s no way you’re going to tear up my parking lot in Bakersfield to put heavy loads in there,'” Mr. Schrap said.

The concern exists beyond trade groups. Mr Gallagher, the Maersk director, said if the clean truck rules caused serious problems for small operators it could lead to “significant disruption to the supply chain”.

Forum Mobility is one of several companies that believes it can help small fleets, by building public truck charging stations and leasing electric trucks. The company has obtained permits to build a depot at the Port of Long Beach, expected to open next year, capable of loading 44 trucks. The depot will run on nine megawatts of electricity, enough to power most sports stadiums, but Forum Mobility executives say that to charge all of the port’s trucks would require roughly the amount of energy produced by Diablo Canyon , a Californian nuclear power plant, and thousands of chargers. .

“We need a real Manhattan Project on interconnection,” said Adam Browning, executive vice president for policy at Forum Mobility.

Chanel Parson, director of building and transportation electrification at Southern California Edison, a large electric utility, said building truck charging infrastructure would be made easier if state agencies streamlined issuance permits and expedited approval of expenses, and whether trucking companies communicated their rates. needs.

But she said her company is not intimidated by the task. “There’s no need to worry about it being really difficult,” she said. “This is what we do.”

Mr. Diaz, the operator whose Nikola trucks were recalled, said that charging the trucks cost about 40 percent less than diesel and that he was impressed with their performance. Even with the help of state subsidies, he estimates that electric trucks cost him up to 50% more than diesel models. In the recall, Nikola covered payments on loans Mr. Diaz took out to buy the trucks, but he expressed concern about the truck maker’s financial situation.

Steve Girsky, Nikola’s chief executive, said a new capital infusion in December showed investors had confidence in the company. “It will take us far,” he said in an interview. “Everything this company talks about will come to fruition in the fourth quarter.”

Some trucking industry executives say not only are they accustomed to responding to California’s tightening regulations over the years, but they also believe in the environmental goals of the port truck transition.

Rudy Diaz, president of Hight Logistics, said the new regulations have increased some of his costs as his company has added drivers to its workforce and reduced its reliance on contract drivers using their own diesel trucks.

“It’s additional headaches, additional costs,” he said. “But consumers are demanding more sustainable products and they are willing to pay the price.”

Ana Facio Krajcer reports contributed.

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