Electric trucks come with unique infrastructure needs

Fleets accustomed to paying for fuel on weekly terms with an oil company are in a for a shock when electric vehicles are introduced.

Driving into a refueling facility, pumping in a few hundred liters of diesel, and driving away is one thing. The billing reflects the fuel consumed. That’s all you’ll pay for, other than the occasional credit carrying charge.

Working with electric trucks and the associated charging infrastructure is something else entirely.

The closest comparison would be installing underground fuel tanks in the yard. In this case you pay upfront for the tanks, the dispensers, plumbing, conduit, environmental precautions, excavation, and associated maintenance costs. Operationally, you have nothing more to worry about than scheduling the next delivery before the tank runs dry. The lower per-liter cost for diesel eventually offsets the high upfront infrastructure cost.

The infrastructure required to support electric trucks is vastly more complex, expensive, and convoluted. From determining the anticipated demand to procuring the utility connections, electrical apparatus and the chargers themselves, it quickly becomes and cart-and-horse discussion: How do you estimate demand until you understand the operational domain, the capabilities of the trucks and charging equipment, and the utility’s rates and billing policies?

Trucks and duty cycles

To understand the energy demand and charging requirements, you must first understand the trucks’ proposed duty cycles. Vehicle suppliers can pretty accurately estimate factors like energy consumption and the required battery capacity.

But you can’t work with averages when it comes to electric vehicles. Before the battery can be sized, the proposed route must be analyzed for length, duration, weights and speeds, and regenerative braking opportunities. Due to the weight and cost of batteries, over-estimating or building in significant contingencies is an expensive luxury.

Then the charging opportunities can be determined, such as how many shifts the truck will operate per day, whether fast or slow charging will be used, the best time of day to charge, and what the daily energy consumption will be.

Connecting to the grid

While the engineers are working out how many kilowatts you’ll need to get your trucks there and back again, you can talk to the utility company about grid connections, the required equipment, and the cost of the service. Hardware costs primarily consist of “make-ready” hardware such as distribution feeders, transformers, meters, and the service drop.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to generalize about this process because every province, municipality, and electricity supplier will approach this differently. There are local bylaws, easement processes, and building codes to consider. Even the availability of appropriate voltage maybe in question, depending on the local utility’s transmission and distribution infrastructure.  

On-site Infrastructure

On-site infrastructure needs include the terminal’s design and layout — where the chargers will be located, how many chargers are needed, the flow of traffic through the yard, and possibly expansion plans. The infrastructure needs will change depending on the energy demands, so jumping from one truck to five might not be a big problem. Going from 10 trucks to 50 will make a huge difference to the design and cost of the project.

Vehicle chargers

The good news with vehicle chargers is you won’t need charger for every truck. And you’ll probably need a smaller charger than you think. Chargers are rated for output capacity, but they are not necessarily administering a full charge at the rated speed each time. Depending on the truck’s duty cycle, they will return to base with some residual charge, and they may not be put back into service for some time. This means they may not need to be charged quickly.

The bad news is chargers can be prohibitively expensive. High-capacity chargers come with a higher price tag, as do chargers with a greater range of features such as smart charging, which helps to lower electricity costs by varying the rate and timing of the charge according to demand and pricing.

Project costs: Understand that this is all very new, and suppliers are just beginning to enter the market. Pricing is far from firm, and not something anyone likes talking about. But in 2019 the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado listed costs (in US dollars) of a typical DC fast charger for commercial operations:

  • 50-kW charger: $20,000 to $35,800
  • 150 kW charger: $76,600 to $100,000
  • 350 kW charger: $128,000 to $150,000   

It also noted charging site elements including the charging hardware, management software, and maintenance can run 10-30% of the total cost.

That’s not much to go on for fleets looking to understand the cost of an EV program. Nor will they find a lot of generic cost information readily available. And bear in mind those figures come from the heavily subsidized California market. Canada is well behind California in terms of the subsidies and incentives available to help fleets ease into the EV world.

Who bears the infrastructure cost?

It’s clear there will be an enormous increase in costs for fleets if they have to pay for all the delivery and charging infrastructure.

“I hate to say that we have to rely on government money to do this,” says Mike Gomes, vice-president of maintenance at Bison Transport, which recently established a two-truck installation in Delta, B.C. “We as an industry — and customers, shippers, and everyone else — should be able to come together to figure this out.”

Because Bison is primarily a longhaul carrier, it will likely be leaning more toward hydrogen fuel cell trucks in the future, Gomes says. But it is exploring battery-electric trucks for some of its regional hauls. The current test project is collaborating with an unnamed customer that is sharing some of the installation costs and contributing to the project.

“That customer is extremely dedicated to doing the right thing, so they’re all on board,” he says. “They just want to understand the cost. They want to understand what it’s going to be operationally for them.”

Fleets looking to electrify in the near future will find procuring trucks fairly easy. Installing and paying for the charging infrastructure and grid connections will be more challenging. It’s new and confusing and difficult to understand. It has its own jargon, and in many cases fleets have to deal with several different entities including the utility company, project advisor, construction company installing the equipment, and even the fire marshal. The marshal can padlock a project that’s not up to code.

“Infrastructure was turning into a deterrent to electrify,” says Brian Alexander, a spokesman for Lion Electric, a Quebec-based OEM. “It was really turning people off from even considering electrification. Or they got down the path of considering it and then said, ‘Wait, this is this is all too complicated.’”

The upside is that most electric truck companies offer comprehensive plans and advisory services to guide customers through the process. Many, like Lion, also offer turnkey plug ‘n play solutions that connect to the grid and start charging trucks. Lion Energy, a division of Lion Electric, offers a complete vehicle charging “kit” in a marine container that can be dropped on the property, and hooked up to the utility’s power lines.

Putting the infrastructure in place to permit a transition from internal combustion engines to electric or hydrogen power will be a huge challenge. The costs are currently substantial, but they will come down as deployment increases.

The questions remain: Who will bear the cost of the expensive initial rollouts? Who will pay the ongoing costs? Industry will shoulder its share, but will these costs have to be supported by ratepayer across the grid, from consumers to industries that do not require trucking’s services?