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Monday, April 22, 2024

The costs of going electric are too great, the benefits too few

There are bandwagons I can happily jump aboard. The Toronto Blue Jays come playoff time, for example. And of course Game of Thrones, Daenerys Targaryen in particular. But I digress already.

Battery-electric heavy trucks aren’t bandwagon-worthy, not even close. Maybe no trucks at all.

(Illustration: iStock)

Plug-in BEV trucks are an enduring bandwagon, loved by most politicians and all environmentalists, almost none of whom understand what’s really involved in the switch from gas or more likely diesel. Let alone how we should manage it. Yet they’re ready to write nonsensical rules and be proud of it.

Before you label me a neanderthal who doesn’t see the issue with climate change and our warming planet, let me assure you that I’m well aware of what’s at stake and that action is required urgently. I even have bona fides. Back in 1972, after I finished university, I founded something called the Canadian Environmental Newsletter along with a sociology professor friend of mine. Our mission was not to educate the public, rather the media. At that time, 51 years ago, the popular press knew nothing about environmental issues, so we aimed to inform them. We were also learning as we went.

I’m a lot less idealistic now than I was then and I’m very disturbed by the loose grasp on reality that bodies like the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) demonstrate. The EPA has shown time and again that it deserves a new title β€” Master of the Sledgehammer. It has approved CARB’s mandate for wildly stricter emissions rules to kick in just four years from now in 2027.

A whopping 80% stronger than current standards. It will effectively mean that half or more of all medium- and heavy-duty trucks sold or registered in the state will have to be zero-emission (ZET), meaning electrically driven by battery or fuel cell, as of 2035. At this point , I think that eight other states have signed on to this absurd standard. Some manufacturers have even bought in, although it’s thought that some may simply abandon the California market. This so-called Advanced Clean Fleets (ACF) rule requires all trucks to be ZETs by 2042.

Remember, our own standards here in Canada will have to mirror what’s written in the US because no engine maker is going to cater to a small market like ours with a milder spec’. It remains to be seen when we’ll ban the sale of diesel engines, but it’s coming.

I don’t really have an issue with battery-driven light and medium-duty trucks (fuel cells won’t have a place in this part of the market) from an operational point of view, and a BEV can also make sense in a Class 8 machine driven locally or regionally. Forget the longhaul truck entirely for now and for the foreseeable future – no range, no infrastructure, too heavy, etc.

And do you think we might ever have enough parking to accommodate trucks hooked up to chargers for hours at a time? Not a chance in hell. There’s already nowhere near enough parking, but if you need a charging station as well as a spot for your break, you won’t be taking rest time on an off-ramp or in a customer’s yard. How do we fit Hours of Service rules into the equation? It would be an utter nightmare for dispatchers.

All of that means that longhaul trucks will never be BEVs. This is fuel-cell territory as things look now, or perhaps some sort of synthetic fuel if we can make enough of it.

But there’s much more than the operations side to think about.

What about our electrical grids? The feds assure us that we’ll be fine on that front but I don’t see how. Think of the load! It’s certainly a big worry in the US, no matter what kind of truck we’re talking about.

My colleague Deborah Lockridge, editor of HDT, our quasi-sister magazine in the US, recently reported on comments made by Andrew Boyle, co-president of Massachusetts-based Boyle Transportation and first vice-chairman of the American Trucking Associations.

“Let me be clear,” he told a US Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on the future of clean vehicles, “if battery-electric trucks had adequate range, there was adequate charging infrastructure, and utilities brought online necessary electricity, we truckers would be delighted. But let me explain our reality.

“One friend tried to put in 30 trucks in Illinois. The city said, ‘Is this some kind of joke? You’re asking for more draw than the entire city requires.’ A California company tried to electrify 12 forklifts. Not trucks, but forklifts. Local power utilities told them that’s not possible.

“When a utility tells you, you’re three years out from converting 10 forklifts in a warehouse, I think that should alert us to the fact that we’re just not there,” Boyle said.

In any case, for cars and trucks alike, are batteries really viable? Sensitive? Harmless?

The thing is, millions upon millions of tons of cobalt, graphite, lithium, and nickel will be needed to make those batteries, most of which are currently produced in China. They source those materials from Africa, Australia, and South America, often mined by children in appalling conditions. Do we want to be party to horrendous human-rights abuses. And just to satisfy the US market, we’re talking as much as 35 years worth of current global production and as much as 64% of global reserves. We’re somewhat lucky here in Canada because we already mine some of these materials and have begun to make batteries. More mines here and in the US will be needed.

Do the rabid environmentalists ever consider this aspect of the BEV bandwagon? They certainly don’t talk about it. Surely they can’t like the idea of ​​new mines being developed because they always present harm to the natural world with social impacts too. Mining and processing produce significant pollution and I’ve read that a million gallons of water can be needed to produce a single pound of lithium. A heavy truck battery requires some 300 lb. of the stuff.

There’s also the cost of all this to consider, both in the construction of many mines and the ongoing cost of these materials. Prices are market-driven, of course, and lithium’s price tag doubled last year.

I’ve gone on long enough here (could go on much longer) but let me finish with research from the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI). Last year it analyzed the environmental impacts of Class 8 ZETs to identify and compare full life-cycle CO2 emissions for three truck types β€” diesel, BEV, and fuel-cell-electric. They took into account vehicle production, energy production and consumption, and vehicle disposal/recycling.

“The study found,” says ATRI, “that full life-cycle CO2 emissions for the battery-electric truck would only generate 30% fewer emissions than the standard diesel truck.”

And in the end, that’s why I’m not hopping aboard this particular bandwagon.


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