Electrification of trucking received two huge boosts recently with US electric automaker Tesla and Canadian grocer Loblaws both unveiling electric semi trucks, drawing excitement and skepticism as these Class 8 trucks, or 18-wheelers, have long been regarded as the most difficult to electrify.
The trucking sector is crucially important with respect to climate change mitigation, not least in BC, as it is responsible for 13 percent of the province’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to Natural Resources Canada. For comparison, passenger vehicles represent 11 percent of emissions and buses just one percent. At the same time, while emissions from passenger vehicles have declined almost 5 percent since 2007, and buses 16 percent, emissions from trucks have soared 13.5 percent.
So what does this electric truck trend mean for Canada where cities are spread out much further than in the US and Europe?
Many deep decarbonization scenarios for road freight transport assume widespread uptake of biofuels, but the sustainability of at least first-generation biofuels such as bioethanol has been widely challenged, and also prompted many questions about its competition with food and feed for arable land. Low carbon but non-renewable fossil fuels such as natural gas are one option as a transition fuel, but these must also be phased out eventually to avoid dangerous climate change. So, some form of electrification is a great option, either via battery-electric (BEs) or hydrogen powered fuel-cell electric (FCE) trucks.
Currently, a range of light duty and shorter haul BE trucks are in development in many countries. The schedules of urban delivery and drayage trucks, which move loads from ports to distribution centres, works well in principle with overnight charging at a central facility, thus not requiring a network of charging stations. But for long-haul trucking, this is a major challenge, as the low energy density, or the amount of energy stored per unit of volume, of the batteries requires much larger and heavier batteries. These take a long time to recharge and as battery weight increases, revenue weight decreases.
This fall, German automaker Daimler unveiled a truck that could hit 350 kilometres (220 miles). The base price Tesla semi, clocking in at $192,000 (US$150,000), however will enjoy a range of 480 km (300 miles), fully loaded (36,000 kg/80,000 pounds), according to the company’s impresario CEO Elon Musk. Tesla will also offer a 800-km model (500 miles) for an additional $130,000 (US$100,000), which can then do another 640 km (400 miles) after a recharge of just 30 minutes from the company’s network of solar-powered “megachargers,” yet to be built.
Anything under about 965 km (600 miles) is considered regional, not long-haul, according to industry experts. Cummins assesses it would take around 19,000 pounds of batteries to achieve this distance on a single charge, which is challenging in terms of weight.
The average length of haul in the trucking industry in the US has fallen to 800 km in 2016 from 1,300 km at the turn of the millennium, according to the American Trucking Associations, due to expansion of ports in the US and an increase in online shopping. In Canada as well, length of haul is dropping, with more emphasis on regional hauls, according to the Canadian Trucking Alliance.
Fuel-cell electric trucks do not face the range, weight or cold-weather challenges of their battery electric counterparts. For these reasons, modelled projections performed for the Canadian government on how to achieve its deep decarbonization targets by 2050 indicate a large role for hydrogen and alternative fuel vehicles alongside electric. But hydrogen faces its own challenges, not least the need for a build-out of fuelling stations, as well as fuel-cell durability.
However, in October, Toyota’s Class 8 fuel-cell electric truck hit the road, a hydrogen-powered prototype servicing Californian ports and warehouses. Kenworth said in August it will release a Class 8 fuel-cell electric truck in the new year, and US-based Nikola Motor announced in September that it is developing its own Class 8 fuel-cell electric truck in partnership with Bosch, but the vehicle is not scheduled for release before 2021.
Energy economist Mark Jaccard helped design BC’s carbon tax, and he still supports it. But he questions just how politically viable a stringent tax—at the level needed to meet climate targets—can really be. So he also continues to explore how other policies that the public find more acceptable could work.