EVs Need Charging Infrastructure. Is Urban Freight Any Different? (Part II)
Is public charging a realistic option for urban freight?
In Part 1, we focused our discussion of electrifying urban freight on grid capacity and installing the correct charger for the job. In this post, we continue the discussion by exploring an avenue for charging infrastructure: publicly available chargers.
Asked about their own plans for electrifying urban freight fleets during August’s meeting, Urban Freight Lab (UFL) members stated they would rely primarily on depot charging: Trucks and vans would charge overnight in private facilities. These members agreed that public charging (i.e., curbside charging) was not key to electrifying the last-mile delivery sector. Policy research groups seem to support this take on charging needs. The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) in 2021 estimated that more than 2 million depot-based chargers will be needed in the U.S. by 2050 to meet charging demand. When it comes to public chargers, they estimate that need will be fewer than 300,000. That same year, Atlas Public Policy estimated that 75-90% of freight-related charging will occur at depots.
Both reports suggest, however, that investment is still needed in public charging infrastructure. Why? Because more than 90% of trucking companies in the U.S. are owner-operators or are fleets of 6 trucks or fewer. These small companies represent only 18-20% of trucks on the road, but they may lack the financial resources to install a truck or van charger and/or access to depot-based overnight charging. With that in mind we address the question: Is public charging a realistic option for urban freight?
Is public charging a realistic option for urban freight?
Challenges to Curbside Charging
One reason UFL members think public – and namely curbside – charging may not be a realistic option for their operations is that charging en route requires significant downtime. With current technology, a medium-sized delivery van may take anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours to reach a full charge. Last-mile deliveries of goods like prepared food and furniture rarely take more than 15 minutes; parcel deliveries rarely exceed 20 minutes. With customers spread throughout a city, it is impractical for many drivers to leave a vehicle charging and make deliveries on foot at other destinations without reducing vehicle and driver utilization.
Another challenge both cities and urban freight operators face is competition for the curb. With cities seeking to designate curb space for deliveries to alleviate double parking and congestion, can they afford to tie up those loading zones with charging vehicles?
With cities seeking to designate curb space for deliveries to alleviate double parking and congestion, can they afford to tie up those loading zones with charging vehicles?
For utilities, one challenge is predicting where and when charging is required. In its upcoming passenger EV charger program, Seattle City Light asked EV owners to submit applications to have one of 30 chargers installed at the curb for public use. Based on these applications the utility will know where at least some personal vehicle charging demand will be. With cities and their associated utilities lacking a detailed understanding of urban freight operations, though, determining where to place curbside chargers is a tall order.
With cities and their associated utilities lacking a detailed understanding of urban freight operations, though, determining where to place curbside chargers is a tall order.
Finally, reflecting a point made in EVs Need Charging Infrastructure. Is Urban Freight Any Different? (Part 1), charging infrastructure requires a good deal of capital. There are few public mechanisms for financing curbside and other public charging solutions. The National EV Charging Network emphasizes personal vehicle charging. The infrastructure deployment plan for that $5 billion national initiative defines a built-out EV charging network infiltration as four chargers every 25 miles. But as public comments collected before the rule was made public highlight, accommodations for freight vehicle charging have not been included in this national initiative.
State funding has seemingly mirrored UFL members’ views that charging will take place at company facilities. California’s EV Fast Track and Jumpstart funding target businesses that intend to electrify their own fleets. Incentives through California’s public utilities are likewise aimed at on-site or depot-based charging. In Washington state, tax credits for EV charging infrastructure are offered to businesses, but not necessarily for public charging.
Beneficiaries of Public Charging
UFL members suggest small companies may benefit more from public charging than large fleets. Publicly available charging can act as an incentive to electrify smaller freight fleets if the energy cost is lower than diesel fuel and truck owners can avoid having to pay to create charging infrastructure. Gig-economy and contract drivers who lack access to depots would also benefit.
Publicly available charging can act as an incentive to electrify smaller freight fleets if the energy cost is lower than diesel fuel and truck owners can avoid having to pay to create charging infrastructure.
Members also point out that curbside charging could be used as an auxiliary power source to depot-based charging. Weather and topography can influence the range of an electric vehicle. With companies seeking to minimize capital investments and therefore select the smallest possible battery for a truck or van, having an added source of power available along hilly routes or during poor weather conditions helps achieve that goal.
But is curbside charging the only public option? In short, no. Companies and cities are considering others. In 2019 New York City’s Economic Development Corporation solicited feedback on a plan to use public parking lots and loading docks to offer charging. These facilities would offer room for more trucks than curb chargers and have the potential to provide overnight charging solutions.
UFL members at this summer’s membership meeting offered a similar solution: Using loading bays for charging. At grocery stores, for example, trucks can dock for multiple hours while unloading. While not necessarily open to every urban freight vehicle, the availability of these chargers could reduce the need for infrastructure investments elsewhere.
UFL members offered a similar solution: Using loading bays for charging.
While there is broad consensus that commercial vehicle electrification is an essential step to address the climate emergency, there is consensus among UFL members that curbside charging isn’t a prerequisite for the urban freight sector to make the move to electric vehicles. To spark big and fast change, infrastructure upgrades allowing depot charging at scale seem the most promising avenue to spur the adoption of EVs at scale. While 90% of trucking companies in this country are small fleets or owner-operators, the remaining 10% of companies (the larger ones) are those with the majority of trucks on the road. Smaller truck operators will need support to facilitate EV adoption within that sector of the freight industry, but that support can take many forms and could occur off-street, not clogging already congested curbs.