Mind the (Charging) Gap: Electric truck fleets are set to expand exponentially. But not without robust charging infrastructure.

In 2019 there were just over 2,000 electric trucks on the road across the US. But a recent study published by Wood Mackenzie predicts an extraordinary increase to over 54,000 electric trucks by 2025—27 times the number of electric trucks on the road today. What does this growth mean for EV charging infrastructure?  Experts agree that the expansion of charging networks is likely to be equally astounding.

The decarbonization of the transportation sector—moving from traditional internal combustion engines to electric vehicles—is considered a high priority for addressing climate change. Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the US, according to EPA, accounting for 29 percent of national totals. Nearly a quarter of those emissions come from medium- and heavy-duty trucks which also release additional pollutants from tailpipes, tires, and brakes.  Researchers have identified regional-haul trucking as a segment that, if electrified, would have a significant environmental impact.

Electric fleet operators are turning to distributed energy resources like on-site solar and energy storage to help cover extra electricity needs from EV charging.

Regional trucks cover a lot of miles, and that mileage appears to be going up. According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, medium- and heavy-duty trucks experienced a 95 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled between 1990 and 2015, which also led to a 78 percent increase in CO2 emissions. Experts agree that, as a stepping stone to electrification, it’s imperative for the US to prioritize infrastructure investments for regional, return-to-base trucking operations.

Trucking companies are getting onboard

Although the electric truck market is nascent compared to other electric vehicle market segments, a rising number of companies are considering zero-emissions trucks for their freight hauling operations.

A recent New York Times article explains that “UPS is one of hundreds of companies that have ordered tens of thousands of electric trucks since truck makers started announcing production plans for electrics. Anheuser-Busch, PepsiCo and Walmart are among the Fortune 500 companies awaiting deliveries that won’t begin until next year.”

This list of companies will likely expand as upfront purchase prices come down and new models go into production. There are currently 19 zero-emission truck models from 14 different manufacturers expected to be in production within the next three years. According to a recent GreenTech Media article, this represents an impressive 280 percent increase in the five Class 8 models commercially available today.

The need for EV charging infrastructure

With analysts forecasting such a dramatic rise in the number of e-trucks on the road by 2025, addressing the question of how to meet the high energy demand has become increasingly important. A 2020 Research and Markets study indicates that as sales of electric commercial vehicles rise, market opportunities for system designers, charging infrastructure project developers, and OEMs will increase in parallel. It points specifically to DC fast charging technology developed for medium- and heavy-duty trucks and fleets.

While many electric trucks will be able to rely on Level 2 chargers because they are parked for an extended period of time each day, allowing ample charging time, electric trucks with larger batteries or shorter recharge periods will likely require DC fast chargers and higher levels to satisfy their power needs. However, DC fast-charging stations currently only make up 14% of the public EV charging station market.

As industry working groups, led by The Charging Interface Initiative e.V., work to establish international standards for high power charging of commercial vehicles, it has become apparent that fleet charging systems may require power levels over 1 MW. This increased power demand could have a significant impact on existing energy infrastructure.

Infrastructure upgrades

Expenses necessary for bringing additional power to a site—replacing service lines, transformers, trenching, conduit, and conductors with more robust equipment—can quickly add up, especially when you consider that a small transformer can cost about $15,000 plus labor. A recent Rocky Mountain Institute study of EV charging infrastructure costs revealed that one of the biggest factors driving charging station procurement costs are the power rating of the charger system or the total power requirement of a site with multiple chargers.

While on most utility grids, the available grid power capacity at a site is sufficient to host a 50 kW DC fast-charging unit with a load equivalent to several Level 2 chargers operating simultaneously, with higher levels of power demand, a site will require upgraded power grid capacity increases.

Solutions for on-site generation

Today, project engineers are responding to an unprecedented demand for EV charging stations along with interest in charging electric vehicles with clean energy. One solution that system designers find successful is co-locating EV charging infrastructure with on-site renewable energy generation to support power demand and offset cost. Adding storage to a site with solar generation can increase the flexibility of EV load and improve the economic profile by capturing excess generation when chargers are not in use.

A growing number of project developers are using modeling tools like HOMER Grid to evaluate the energy demands of charging systems and identify the optimal system design. Companies like California-based ChargeNet are leveraging the software’s ability to simulate the engineering and financial performance of distributed energy systems that include EV charging and identify the most economical configurations.

HOMER Grid software addresses two types of charging scenarios—on-demand mode and deferrable charging station mode—when simulating energy systems. It prioritizes the use of renewable power and schedules charging to take advantage of grid electricity when it is at its lowest cost. The software tool not only accepts inputs to describe vehicle types and charging requirements such as EV battery size and maximum charge rate, it also provides calculations on capital and operating costs and payback times. It consistently demonstrates that intelligent infrastructure planning yields positive economic results.

Beyond system modeling, experts also recommend that project developers use microgrid controls and management software to help balance the grid, EV charging, and existing loads. These software products can also charge batteries during low-peak periods to reduce power costs if enrolled in a time-of-use rate. During off-peak periods the storage asset can recharge using cheap grid power while during peak periods it can discharge to the EV chargers. 

Gathering data to inform infrastructure expansion is integral to the success of e-transport vehicles. Volvo Trucks recently launched a three-year demonstration fleet of 23 regional haul e-trucks based at the Port of Long Beach in an effort to study electric fleet energy and cost management strategies, advance e-trucking technology, and gather data for renewable-based fleet charging infrastructure. The program, called the Volvo Low Impact Green Heavy Transport Solutions project (Volvo LIGHTS), represents a collaboration between the South Coast Air Quality Management District, Volvo Trucks, and 14 other organizations. It has established a charging network composed of both private and public fast chargers. Fleet operators will use solar-only and solar-plus-storage approaches to help bring down their operations costs. Vehicle and charging profile data from the project’s 23 regional haul e-trucks will help improve infrastructure expansion and utility planning.

As e-trucks emerge as viable alternatives to internal combustion transport models and fleets expand, it has become increasingly clear that the establishment of a robust EV charging ecosystem is essential to their success. Closing the charging gap with infrastructure powered by renewable resources will provide a multitude of environmental and economic benefits. It will also require thoughtful planning, innovative engineering, and collaboration among stakeholders—but it’s never been more feasible.

Explore EV charging and grid-tied systems in greater depth by joining industry leaders at the 8th annual HOMER International Microgrid Conference on October 13 at 1:00 for a session titled Grid-Connected Systems for Resilience, Demand Charge Management & EV Charging. Attendance is free and 100% online. Visit microgridconference.com to register.