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EV Trucks Are About to Hit the US Highways — But There's One Big Problem More trucks mean more demand for energy. Are states ready for this?

By Lisa Prevost

This story originally appeared on Energy News Network

While the Northeast is ramping up efforts to electrify the diesel-powered truck fleets that rumble through its major freight corridors, the region lacks a vision for what the increased electricity demand will mean for the grid and vehicle charging infrastructure.

A new study headed up by National Grid, the utility company, aims to lay out a clear path forward.

Brian Wilkie, National Grid's director of transportation electrification in New York, said the two-year study will pinpoint future critical charging locations along highways in nine Northeast states, and advise as to where major transmission upgrades will be needed.

The study is pulling together transportation planning and electric transmission distribution planning expertise, "two sectors of the economy that never really talk to each other," Wilkie said.

A multi-state approach

It's clear that future power demands along the highways will be significant. A study released last year by National Grid projected power demand growth across 71 highway charging sites in New York and Massachusetts. It determined that as soon as 2030, more than a quarter of those sites will require a level of charging capacity equal to the demand of an outdoor professional sports stadium.

And by 2045, some of the most high-demand locations will require charging capacity equivalent to the electric load of a major industrial site.

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The upgrades required, including high-voltage, transmission-level interconnections, will be costly and take four to eight years to complete, the report concluded.

The expanded study will cover Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. While that swath of land extends well beyond National Grid's service territory, "if you don't have a more regional view, you fail to study it properly and you don't allow for the type of cooperation that is required across state borders," Wilkie said. "The transportation sector doesn't honor state lines."

The study is being funded with a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, which announced the award last month as part of the Biden administration's efforts to accelerate the creation of zero-emission vehicle corridors across the country.

The project "is extremely well-timed," said Sarah McKearnan, senior manager for clean transportation at Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, known as NESCAUM, a nonprofit association of state air quality agencies and a participant in the study.

"Over the next five years, states will have access to very significant levels of federal funding to expand public charging stations," she said. "This project will provide essential input that Northeast states can use to guide decisions about how to spend that funding."

NESCAUM facilitates a zero-emission vehicle task force that last year released a multi-state action plan for electrifying medium- to heavy-duty vehicles. The plan highlights the need for state and utility coordination to plan for grid transmission and distribution capacity, something the National Grid study will help lay the groundwork for.

Big rigs and big data

Zero-emission trucks are expected to expand rapidly throughout the region in coming years, not least because all of the states in the study group except New Hampshire are signatories to a memorandum of understanding promising to work together to foster widespread electrification of those vehicles.

In addition, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey have adopted California's Advanced Clean Trucks rule, which requires truck makers to sell an increasing number of zero-emission vehicles beginning with model year 2025.

The trucking industry is preparing for that transition, but they also understand that they won't be able to sell zero-emission trucks at scale if the infrastructure isn't in place to support them, said Diego Quevedo, utilities lead in Daimler Truck North America's infrastructure and consulting department for zero-emission vehicles.

Daimler Truck North America, the country's largest commercial vehicle manufacturer and a participant in the National Grid study, began studying the feasibility of zero-emission vehicles in 2017. Their goal is to have a zero-emission vehicle offering in every lineup that they sell by 2039, in order to transition all customer fleets to zero-emission by 2050, Quevedo said.

The company has about 40% of the country's market share in Class 6 through 8 trucks, "anywhere from your really big U-Haul box trucks all the way to the semi-tractor trailers you see on the highway," he said.

What they bring to the National Grid study is data. They use a software system that pings GPS coordinates from their Class 8 vehicles out in the field — some 230,000-250,000 tractors nationwide. The data is aggregated and anonymized so there is no specific customer information.

"You can look at where these vehicles operate, where they are stopping, how long they stop, how far they travel before they stop," Quevedo said. "Assuming that those vehicles in the future are battery electric, you can determine what the future load requirements will be to replenish those electric miles that they're traveling. It can give utilities very good insight into the future hotspots for load."

David Mullaney, a principal at RMI's carbon-free transportation team and a core participant in the study, said they will be looking at truck traffic through existing highway truck stops, as well as the ports of New York and New Jersey.

"But we don't look at every truck stop out there," said Mullaney, who has done similar modeling studies elsewhere in the U.S. and co-authored the earlier National Grid study. "We are preliminarily looking at places with proximity to big electrical infrastructure, where it is cost-effective to bring more electricity to."

Targeting high-traffic sites that can connect to the transmission system more easily will allow charging infrastructure to be scaled more quickly and result in "no-regrets" investments, McKearnan said.

Who pays?

Perhaps the biggest challenge in getting all this done is figuring out how to pay for it. Utilities typically spread the cost of infrastructure investments across their ratepayer base, with regulator approval. But in this case, "it would be deeply unfair to put it on the average ratepayer," Mullaney said.

Federal and state governments may need to think more broadly about who is benefiting from these investments, and spread the costs around accordingly, he said. For example, trucking companies who longer have to pay for diesel, truck stops that are selling more products because trucks stop there to charge, and the public, whose health benefits from cleaner air.

"We have to look at high diversification of revenue streams," he said.

Wilkie agrees that it will require more creative thinking about how to allocate the cost of this infrastructure. One idea is highway toll stratification, in which electric trucks pay higher tolls to offset some of the costs.

"We're going to have to change the paradigm a bit," he said. "But we can't let that conversation stop us from taking action."

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