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  • Writer's pictureTravis Fried

Electric Vehicles Need Charging Infrastructure. Is Urban Freight Any Different? (Part I)

How can charging infrastructure spark urban freight electrification?

Electric King County Metro bus connecting to a charging station.

With billions of federal dollars to be invested in building out the country’s charging network, EVs (Electric Vehicles) will soon be getting more places to juice up than ever before. The colossal infrastructure undertaking is meant to keep up with surging EV demand, projected to make up a quarter of all new car sales by 2025. For instance, meeting Seattle’s target of putting 174,000 passenger EVs on the road by 2030, almost a third of the city’s total vehicle stock, will require 2,900 public Level 2 chargers and 860 DC fast chargers. That number is over five times more than the total chargers installed since 2019.

For instance, meeting Seattle’s target of putting 174,000 passenger EVs on the road by 2030, almost a third of the city’s total vehicle stock, will require 2,900 public Level 2 chargers and 860 DC fast chargers. That number is over five times more than the total chargers installed since 2019.

But estimates for charging stations often overlook the diverse plug-in needs of large commercial semi-trucks, box trucks, service and construction vehicles as well as smaller delivery vans and even electric cargo bicycles. Ramping up commercial fleet electrification will likely require cities, businesses, developers, and utility providers to reshape charging strategies.

When we asked Urban Freight Lab members at the Spring 2022 quarterly meeting about their dream and nightmare scenarios for realizing their company’s sustainability goals, almost a third of responses related directly to providing adequate charging infrastructure. In fact, building out charging stations was the most cited priority across several action areas, which included efforts on real-time data sharing, dynamic loading zone management, and e-truck procurement incentives, among others.

So when it came to this month’s member meeting, UFL researchers wanted to know: how can charging infrastructure spark urban freight electrification? Here’s what the team had to say.

Getting the Grid up to Snuff

Members’ biggest concern lies beyond the power socket. Will electrifying commercial fleets overstrain the already high power demands at the manufacturing plant or warehouse? According to a U.S. Department of Energy report, a scenario of aggressive transportation electrification could add up to 38% to projected power demands through 2050. The added demand is certainly sizable but far from insurmountable with enough investment and planning. This is not to say the tab is small. Meeting electrification-driven power demands, transitioning to renewable energy generation, and upgrading aging grid infrastructure prone to weather-related disruptions, like the one that left 4.5 million people in Texas without power for several days in February 2021, will require trillions of dollars in investment by the end of the decade. This investment includes $350 billion in high-voltage transmission infrastructure alone, according to a Princeton University report.

But assuaging capacity concerns could be as straightforward as changing when people and companies choose to charge up. Incentive pricing, like New York’s SmartCharge program, and smart charging and storage technology can distribute demand to off-peak hours or onsite solar generators without overburdening the grid. Moreover, electrification opens new sources of revenue for utility providers to upgrade transmission infrastructure and drive the transition to renewable energy. Other solutions include vehicle-to-grid or vehicle-to-building integration, which enables batteries to give power back to the user when the EV is not in use. Down drawing on unused EV battery capacity can improve power resiliency during emergency outages or even be sold back to the utility provider, as is the case for one school bus electrification initiative in San Diego.

The Right Charger for a Big Job

But as Seattle City Light, the city’s primary utility provider, points out in a 2019 report supported by the Rocky Mountain Institute, electrifying the entire freight sector presents a whole new beast for both fleets and utility providers. Commercial vehicles are beholden to operating schedules that may concentrate power demands more than passenger vehicles and they require far more juice. Current models for medium and heavy-duty electric trucks, for instance, consume over five times the energy-per-mile than light-duty EVs, meaning bigger batteries and stronger chargers.

But choosing the right charging strategy will largely depend on the type of freight trip. Long-haul trucking which can span over 500 miles a day will likely require mid-haul charging on the highway. And in the trucking sector where time down means money lost (often coming out of the drivers’ own pocket), the chargers will have to be fast. Highway-side ‘mega-charging stations’ in Portland, Oregon, and Bakersfield, California have shown it is possible to fully charge an electric semi-truck in 30 minutes. But a wider roll-out has yet to be seen.

For shorter end-to-end trips (most freight trips are less than 100 miles) warehouse and fleet operators may simply prefer to have their own on-site stations for overnight charging. But that leaves them on the hook for installing costly charging and energy storage infrastructure. Charging installation could cost operators anywhere from $27,000 to almost $200,000 per vehicle, depending on fleet type, size, and energy needs.

Given the price tag, it’s little wonder UFL members are seeking options. Members have pointed to the possibility of both stationary and enroute wireless charging, or inductive charging. Inductive charging, even mobile charging, is nothing new with wireless e-bus routes implemented in Gumi, South Korea, and Salt Lake City, Utah, as early as 2013. The advantage, of course, is virtually limitless battery ranges and refuelings that don’t interrupt services. Unsurprisingly, convenience comes at the cost of higher infrastructure overhead and slightly reduced energy efficiencies, due to the spacing between the in-road charging coils and EVs’ receiving plate.

Other members have pointed to a more familiar, service-based option. Rather than owning your site’s charging station outright, ‘charging-as-a-service’ startups promise to provide an all-in-one, subscription-based package for customers including station installation, software, maintenance, and payment processing.

“[Charging-as-as-service providers] are among the most frequent startups we see working in the electrification space,” one UFL member reports.


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