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Electric trucks: The next frontier for energy and emissions savings

A promising array of new electric trucks, buses, and delivery vans is slated to soon enter the US market, and to address climate change, California and a few other states are beginning to push for their wider use.

As a new ACEEE paper explains, electrification of trucks and buses can bring many benefits, including lower energy use and emissions—even when the impacts of power generation are included—as well as reduced operating costs, including fuel and maintenance. Other benefits include higher torque (useful for starts and going up a slope) and quieter operation.

Currently, however, these vehicles cost more up front, generally have reduced range compared to conventional trucks, and must depend on limited charging infrastructure. Efforts to address these limitations are underway, and leading experts expect electric trucks to be widespread by 2040. The speed of the transition between now and then is an open question. 

Electrification of trucks is important because trucks account for a substantial share of vehicle energy use and emissions. While trucks and buses are only 5% of the vehicles on US roads, they account for 27% of vehicle energy use and carbon dioxide emissions. Trucks also emit nitrogen oxides (NOx), black carbon, and fine particles, harming human health and contributing to global warming. Heavy-duty on-road vehicles account for 16% of total US NOx emissions, 15% of black carbon emissions, and 9% of fine particle emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s latest National Emissions Inventory.

Emerging market for electric buses, delivery vans, and tractor-trailers

Dozens of electric truck and bus models are now on the market, and many more are slated to enter it in the next few years. Leading states and cities have begun to transition their bus purchases to electric models, putting buses at the forefront of heavy-duty electrification.

Delivery trucks and certain other vocational vehicles are also well-suited to electrification and will soon reach net cost parity (considering operating, finance, and other costs) with diesel trucks for a number of market segments. They thus could serve as a bridge to electric trucks in a wide array of applications. Heavy pickup trucks are also an important segment; electric light-duty pickups are on the way, and the technology will eventually reach the market’s heavier segment.

Tractor-trailers are by far the largest energy user and pollution emitter in the truck sector, accounting for the majority of truck energy use, and they present an important but challenging target for electrification because of their range and charging requirements. Electric models currently on the market have a short range, but models with longer ranges (one manufacturer is claiming up to 500 miles) are scheduled to enter the market in 2020 and 2021. Most truck routes are less than 500 miles and might be suitable for electric trucks; for longer hauls, fuel-cell tractors, which could be better suited than battery-electrics, are scheduled to enter the market in late 2022. 

Overcoming barriers to wider adoption

In all of these market segments, electric vehicles (EVs) have substantially higher upfront cost than conventional vehicles, due primarily to the cost of batteries. To help bridge this gap, financial incentives and financing will be useful, if not essential. Zero-emission truck mandates, as California is now developing and other states are considering, are likely to play a pivotal role in increasing electric truck adoption.

Another critical issue is electric charging infrastructure for fleets and truck stops. Charging stations suitable for heavy-duty vehicles are virtually nonexistent today, creating one of the largest obstacles to heavy-duty EV adoption. For large fleet lots and truck stops with many chargers, the power needed to charge vehicles will be in the megawatts (a megawatt is average power draw of about 800 US homes). Electric utilities will need to plan for how they can bring so much power to these locations.

Electric trucks have a promising future, but much work remains in the near term to overcome present challenges. Priority should be given to overcoming initial cost barriers, including through financial and other incentives, and building the charging infrastructure. 

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