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Are electric trucks ready for California’s real world of work? It depends on the task

Electric trucks big and small are key to automakers’ and California’s goals to cut emissions of climate concern from transportation, which contributes nearly one-third.

But are these vehicles up to the job? That all depends on what job they’re doing.

Electric, hybrid and alternative-fuel passenger cars have been integrated into government and business fleets for well over a decade, but now major and startup automakers are rolling out all-electric versions of the light-, medium- and heavy-duty trucks commonly in use in North Bay vineyards, construction sites and production yards. And the manufacturers want to know if they’re ready for hire.

One of the latest such trials is a widely publicized partnership Ford Motor Company launched on Jan. 26 with viticultural trade group Sonoma County Winegrowers. Three members – Bevill Vineyard Management, Vino Farms and Dutton Ranch – will be trying out the Michigan automaker’s soon-to-be-released E-Transit vans and F-150 Lightning Pro pickups, along with charging stations and fleet-management software co-developed with Salesforce.

Those growers are the first Ford is working with to try out the pickups, and reservations for deliveries when available have been capped at 200,000, a spokesperson said. The electric vans are set to arrive at the Sonoma County pilot farms in May, with the test pickups set to arrive thereafter.

For Healdsburg wine grape grower Duff Bevill, the estimated mileage per charge of the F-150 Lightning Pro electric pickups and of the E-Transit cargo van would work for the tasks commonly undertaken by his conventional vehicles.

The pickup’s standard battery has an estimated 230-mile range, going up to 300 with a larger battery. The van is expected to have a 126-mile range, according to a Ford spokesperson. However, a Car & Driver review of the pro-oriented pickup said its range could drop to 100-200 miles when towing a significant load.

That doesn’t bother Bevill.

The company buys gasoline and diesel in bulk for the roughly three dozen trucks in the company fleet, which are a mix of half-ton pickups up to class 8 big rigs. The conventional half-ton pickups in the fleet have a range of 300-350 miles on a tank, and common tasks the vehicles are involved with are carrying hundreds of pounds of bagged fertilizer or packages of plastic vine ties from the supplier to a vineyard site.

The diesel big rigs handle the heavy-load tasks of hauling harvesters, tractors and other equipment as well as ferrying up to 22 tons of grapes from vine to winery crushpad.

And he’s rarely seen a queue for refueling at the farm shop because pickups are coming back in during the day with dry tanks.

“None of them I think will need recharging during the day,” Bevill said of the electric pickups. “My foreman who meets crews at the job site may need to recharge once a week, and the guys using (the pickup) more frequently might charge two times a week.”

That limited use would allow the 240-volt level 2 charger Ford is installing as part of the pilot program enough to serve two pickups on overnight charges. The level 2 charger can replenish the pickup battery in about 12 hours, while a DC fast charger can do so in six to eight hours, according to Ford.

The Lightning Pro pickups also can act like a generator to power tools, and they are set to have an onboard scale to factor loads into range estimates and consumption statistics, a Ford spokesperson said.

Bevill is working on getting the pilot E-Transit, which is built on the F-250 chassis, configured as a passenger van instead of for cargo. The company currently uses conventional vans and a bus to ferry farmworkers from its dormitory to the fields.

The company has a fleet rotation schedule for the pickups of 200,000-240,000 miles, selling off vehicles before they need major items, namely a new engine. That results in three or four pickups being added annually, so Bevill is considering making one or two of the additions all-electric.

That calculus could be more appealing when comparing the sticker prices, he said. The Lightning Pro with a standard battery lists for just under $40,000, and $49,000 with the larger module, with as much as $10,000 off via federal and state tax credits. A conventional F-150 can list for $45,000 and requires recurring maintenance costs such as oil changes.

Because Bevill’s Healdsburg farm has a photovoltaic array that has consistently been generating more net power than consumed over its 10-year life, he is not concerned about a hit to his electrical system by installing a number of new chargers.

Moon shot needed for electric big rigs?

“If the truck and bus (diesel) rule was about going to the moon, we’re now being asked to go outside the solar system.” —Chris Shimoda, California Trucking Association

While such agricultural uses of electric pickups and solar-offset charging appears within reach now, some operators of large trucks are concerned that the Golden State’s bold plan to mostly decarbonize passenger and commercial vehicles by 2045 is being compared with the late President John F. Kennedy’s moon challenge in late 1962:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

The state’s largest trucking trade group is concerned that it could be facing another moon-shot-like deadline to reach a place where the technology to get there is still emerging. A decade and a half ago, state air regulators called for emissions from large diesel engines to meet higher standards, but the engines for each more stringent tier of emissions hadn’t yet been produced. And as a result, deadlines to meet those standards repeatedly were pushed back, and the changes called for retiring some vehicles from company fleets well ahead of their planned lifecycle.

“If the truck and bus (diesel) rule was about going to the moon, we’re now being asked to go outside the solar system,” said Chris Shimoda, senior vice president of government affairs for the California Trucking Association. “The vehicle technology needed to get there and massive buildout of charging infrastructure, with hundreds if not thousands of stations on a grid that quite frankly is not able to handle it.”

Last year, the California Air Resources Board finalized the advanced clean trucks rule, which calls for 70% of medium- and heavy-duty trucks in the state to move to hybrid or electric by 2035, and now the agency is set to finalize a draft this spring for the advanced clean fleets rule, which would expand such requirements to trucking companies.

What’s challenging for the trucking industry is that medium- and heavy-duty trucks vary widely in uses and performance demands. For example, a class 5 truck like a panel van commonly used by courier and delivery services in a 100-mile radius of a hub where the vehicles return could be feasibly transitioned to electrics and eight- to 10-hour charging times over the next decade, according to Shimoda.

The problem comes with class 8 big rigs with large batteries and long, irregular routes. The fastest DC chargers today take four hours to charge these vehicles, and six to eight hours with smaller chargers.

“A trucker can’t afford to sit at a charging station for four hours,” Shimoda said.

And then the scale of the chargers comes into play, even if they are paired with battery storage to round off the peak demand to the grid.

He pointed to this comparison: Chargers for passenger vehicles can be 25 to 50 kilowatts, so pairing several together at a station may call for a battery capable of discharging at 100 kilowatts or more. Chargers for larger trucks commonly start at 150 kilowatts then go up to 250 and 350 kilowatts or as much as 1 megawatt for fast chargers to fill up in 30-60 minutes. So if 10 250-kilowatt chargers were in a station, the accompanying battery would have to put out 2.5 megawatts.

“I tell people that of the 400,000 class 8 semis in California if you plug in 10% of them – 40,000 – into megawatt chargers, that would equal the total state’s (average) energy demand of 40 megawatts,” Shimoda said. “We’re having a problem keeping the lights on with (public safety power shut-offs) and calls this past summer to save energy to keep the lights on.”

California rolls out rules for decarbonizing refrigerated trucks

The California Air Resources Board is getting comment on new standards for transportation refrigeration units, or TRUs, on commercial trucks.

Gov. Gavin Newson in September 2020 directed the agency to achieve 100% zero emission for drayage trucks and off‑road vehicles, equipment and operations by 2035 and, “where feasible” for on-road buses and long-haul trucks by 2045.

CARB’s first chiller-electrification goal is for truck TRUs, or those on produce-delivery vehicles and last-mile fulfillment vans and smaller box trucks. Rules are set to be finalized in the next three months and would start taking effect in 2024, with all truck TRUs being electric, rather than diesel-powered, by 2031.

Such a rule for truck TRUs could be more doable at the moment, because the vehicles typically return to a hub each day and related batteries could be recharged, said Chris Shimoda of California Trucking Association.

Yet TRUs on trailers towed by large trucks may also work. The electrical draw for an electric trailer TRU is estimated to be 8 kilowatts per hour, and that may be a “limited draw” on class 8 electric-truck batteries of 500-600 kilowatt-hours, Shimoda said.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before the Business Journal, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. He has a degree from Walla Walla University. Reach him at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.

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