Skip to content

Zero emission goals for trucking colliding with reality

‘Don’t be like California,’ warns American trucking association
John Choo, sales manager for Vicinty Motors in Aldergrove, makers of the mid-size electric trucks.

Centurion Trucking in Surrey wants to do the right thing when it comes to reducing road emissions, but the reality is that, for long-haul trucking, it basically would take two battery electric trucks to do the work of one diesel semi truck.

And hydrogen fuel cell trucks aren’t quite ready for prime time, partly due to costs and availability, and partly due to the fact that there isn’t a whole lot of green hydrogen on the market yet, and using grey hydrogen made from natural gas kind of defeats the purpose – the purpose being reducing CO2 emissions from commercial trucking.

The long-haul trucking sector, then, is kind of stuck, when it comes to switching from diesel engines to a power source that produces no CO2 emissions.

“The hard reality for battery electric is they won’t work in the long-haul world, and that’s OK,” Dave Earle, president of the BC Trucking Association, said at a zero emission vehicle (ZEV) showcase Wednesday in Vancouver.

The good news, he said, is that there are opportunities to decarbonize the medium-duty, and heavy-duty short-haul sectors with battery electric vehicles (BEV).

“These work really, really well in the class three to five," Earle said. "And even working with the bigger stuff, we know that… about 20 per cent of the fleet is local. About 20 per cent of the fleet goes back to base at the end of the night.”

“Yes, there are challenges, but there’s also really serious, big opportunities in the battery electric world, particularly in that local market.”

In B.C. there are about 67,000 heavy duty vehicles and 250,000 medium duty vehicles that account for about 50 per cent of transportation emissions.

Centurion operates a fleet of 50-plus long-haul semi trucks that go all over North America transporting food, clothing, electronics and other goods.

Even if the company wanted to go all-electric, there are some American states where there simply isn’t enough charging infrastructure yet, Daman Grewal, senior operations manager for Centurion Trucking in Surrey, told BIV News.

Centurion Trucking is among a handful of local fleet operators that have signed up for the new Clean Carrier eco-certification program the BC Trucking Association has launched to help companies plan their transition to lower emission vehicles.

Fleet operators like Centurion don’t just face pressures here in Canada to lower their emissions profiles, they face increasingly stringent regulations in California as well.

Not only does a lot of produce in B.C. come from California, the state also has two of North America’s largest ports – Los Angles and Long Beach -- so a lot of goods move between California and Canada by truck.

“There’s no choice – we have to run into California,” Grewal said. “They’ve said a certain percentage of your fleet now has to be electrified. So for carriers – especially Canadian carriers – that are running long distances into California, that’s going to pose some challenges, if those mandates stick.”

Matt Schrap, CEO of the Harbour Trucking Association, which represents several hundred truckers operating 7,000 vehicles in California, spoke about his state’s “hairbrain policies.”

They include the Advanced Clean Trucks regulation, which is a sales mandate, and the Advanced Clean Fleets regulations, which is a purchase mandate, Schrap said. A number of states and associations are challenging the mandates in court.

Schrap said he expects the regulations could end up chasing smaller fleet operators out of California altogether, and pointed to one example of this already happening.

He said a BEV semi can weigh 29,000 pounds (13,154 kilograms) compared to a 13,000 pound (5,896 kilograms) diesel truck.

There are weight restrictions on California highways, Schrap noted. The added weight from batteries means semi trucks are not able to haul as much cargo as a diesel truck can. Between the limited range and the added weight, it means it can take two electric battery semis to do the same work as one diesel truck.

“You are talking about a delta of about 13,000 pounds of payload capacity that is effectively removed, if you’re using that heavy of a battery platform,” Schrap said. “And this is why my friends at the Teamsters love this rule, because you basically need two trucks to do the job of one.”

He warned against Canadian policymakers taking the same route with regulations that California has.

“Don’t be like California, whatever you do,” he said.

One company that has been taking tentative steps towards decarbonizing fleets in Canada is Loblaw Companies (TSX:L).

Wayne Scott, Loblaws’ senior director of transportation, is in charge of decarbonizing the company’s fleet of delivery trucks.

The company initially tried going with natural gas as an interim step, but that approach was abandoned, and the company has since been going with BEVs.

Loblaws now has 10 electric trucks operating in B.C. and four in Quebec, where the grids are clean and the provinces offer grants, which are on top of federal incentives.

“Without those (grants), these vehicles make no sense on an ROI,” Scott said.

About 20 to 25 per cent of Loblaws’s fleet of trucks operate at relatively short ranges of 240 to 320 kilometres.

“So that’s where we’re putting those vehicles in,” he said.

The other 75 to 80 per cent of the trucking is long haul and will likely require something other than BEVs.

“Our next venture is on the hydrogen side,” Scott said.

While there are many challenges to overcome, there are also opportunities, especially in the medium duty and short-haul sectors, Earle said.

Fleet operators can be eligible for federal and provincial grants of up to $300,000 to switch to zero emission vehicles, and there can be savings in the long-run due to lower operating and fuel costs.

“The energy costs are lower, the maintenance costs are lower,” Earle said.

But the reality is that the transition to zero emission vehicles is going to be a long, rocky road.

“Cost can be a problem,” Earle said. “Net of rebates, these vehicles can still be seriously more expensive. Reliability can be problematic because they’re new. Anything that’s new is going to have issues.

“It’s going to be hard and it’s going to take a lot longer than anybody would like.”

[email protected]