A worker charges an electric tractor-trailer.

A heavy electric short-haul truck is being charged at Total Transportation Services Inc. in Wilmington.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

Fossil fuel-powered trucks emit alarming levels of greenhouse gases, dangerous nitrogen oxides, lung-clogging particulate matter and a toxic mix of other pollutants.

Removing them will be costly — nearly $1 trillion, according to an industry study released Tuesday.

The study, sponsored by the trucking fleet industry, concludes that charging infrastructure for a nationwide fleet of 100% electric trucks, from vans to large trucks, will cost $622 billion.

There is also an additional $370 billion for electric utilities to upgrade or install substations, overhead and underground lines, transformers, poles and equipment to power truck chargers. Electric utilities would have to spend “close to what was spent on the entire system over the last 15 years,” says the report, which puts the cost to date at $450 billion.

Not covered in the report: the cost of the trucks themselves. Large electric vehicles now cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each, three to four times more than a diesel truck. California is spending billions in subsidies to make these trucks more affordable.

According to the trucking industry, the highly detailed report reinforces fears that government regulations are being implemented too quickly.

“It could put the supply chain at risk,” said Jim Mullen, chief strategy officer of the National Motor Freight Traffic Assn., a study sponsor. “It’s really going to make COVID look harmless if we don’t get this right.”

Industry alarmism? It’s hard to say, in part because policymakers haven’t done such comprehensive dollar-cost studies of their own. A 2023 report from the California Department of Transportation estimated that building a charging network of 475 to 525 chargers would be necessary to serve electric trucks on major highway corridors cost $10 to $15 billionwith no electrical upgrade costs.

That’s what the California Air Resources Board estimates operating cost could be 22 to 33% lower for electric trucks than diesel or gasoline by 2030. (In general, forecasts of future electricity rates and fuel prices vary widely depending on the source and assumptions.)

“California and the federal government are making unprecedented investments to prepare for a zero-emissions future that will deliver numerous cost-saving benefits to fleet operators in the form of reduced fuel and maintenance costs,” said Steven Cliff, executive director of the Air Board. “Cleaner air also means lower health care costs for Californians and a future with less costly impacts of climate change.”

State and federal officials have cited the economic benefits of moving away from fossil fuel trucking: creating new jobs and industries, reducing climate risk and, according to the Air Board, saving $26.5 billion in health care costs by 2050 .

The climate and pollution problems are real and have enormous social, economic and health costs. But the dollar cost of minimizing these problems will be borne by taxpayers, utility ratepayers, truck manufacturers, fleet owners, trucking companies and retailers and will be reflected in the price of consumer goods.

Freight transportation is a high-volume, low-margin endeavor. The costs of the transition, combined with the strict timelines set by the government, could drive enough carriers out of business and disrupt freight traffic, the industry believes.

The study was conducted by Roland Berger, an international consulting firm based in Munich. The report fills a data vacuum on the costs of switching to electric trucks, said Wilfried Aulbur, senior partner at the company. “We have not seen a comprehensive, systemic study that examines what it means to decarbonize the transportation sector,” he said.

The industry is committed to cleaning its vehicles, he said. “I don’t think anyone [involved in the study] says, ‘Let’s screw the next generation.'” But “we need to have a fact-based discussion about some of the restrictions and some of the timelines associated with them.”

More than 6 million on-site chargers and about 175,000 on-the-go chargers would be needed nationwide, the report said, citing “hidden or unforeseen costs”: site-specific issues such as the need for wiring and clearance; the extent and cost of wiring and electrical components; utility upgrades to handle increased load; and backup solutions in case vehicles cannot be charged at a specific location.

California has taken the national lead in decarbonizing transportation. Ten states have committed to following the regulatory model in truck traffic. California’s requirement requires 100% of most two-axle trucks to be emission-free by 2035; by 2039, large trucks with day cabs; by 2042, large towing vehicles with sleeping cabins.

This mandate applies to fleets with more than 50 vehicles or annual revenue exceeding $50 million; state, local and federal fleets; and trucks carrying cargo in and out of seaports.

The biggest concern for fleet operators is the so-called drayage trucks, which typically transport shipping containers or bulk goods between ports, train stations and distribution centers, traveling around a few dozen kilometers per day. (A small number travel hundreds of miles to their destination.)

The state is initially taking tough action against transport vehicles. Last April, the Air Resources Authority ruled that no fossil fuel trucks purchased after January 1, 2024 would be allowed to enter a seaport in California. Operators of fossil fuel trucks purchased before that date will be able to enter ports until those trucks are 18 years old or have traveled 800,000 miles, whichever comes first. By 2035, only zero-emission trucks will be allowed to drive there.

Tow trucks have been discovered for at least two reasons: Their pollutant emissions have a disproportionate impact on the health of people who live near seaports and typically live in low-income households. Additionally, since most drayage trucks travel short distances, there is less need for powerful truck chargers along the highway, making the transition easier. The idea is that transport trucks can use lower-power chargers at their home locations and refuel cheaper overnight at these slow chargers.

However, only a few electric transport vehicles have been sold so far and a major expansion of charging systems in transport depots or in ports is required. Startups such as Forum Mobility, WattEV and Voltera Power as well as established companies such as Schneider Electric and ABN build or lease charging stations for trucks.

There’s still a long way to go to meet government mandates, and fast chargers for heavy-duty vehicles can cost more than $100,000 each.

The trucks themselves are extremely expensive and currently difficult to find and buy anyway. A typical diesel truck costs about $120,000. In recent months, large electric drill rig manufacturers have increased their prices to as much as $450,000 to $500,000. Even these are rare – many buyers are on waiting lists that last for months.

Drayage owners caught a break last December when the Air Resources Administration announced it would delay enforcement of drayage rules until it received permission from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to do so under provisions of the federal Clean Air Act.

Meanwhile, the state faces a lawsuit from the California Trucking Assn. last year. It alleges that federal law prevents California from enforcing zero-emission trucking regulations for vehicles registered out of state that cross the border into California.

What are truck fleets looking for? Among other things: Longer periods for the use of biofuels in diesel engines, which are by no means zero-emissions but emit fewer pollutants and greenhouse gases than diesel trucks; Rules allowing diesel engines to switch to burning hydrogen, which does not release greenhouse gases but does emit nitrogen oxides, although far less than diesel fuel; a commitment to subsidies for vehicles and chargers; and faster expansion of expensive substations needed to deliver enough power to powerful truck chargers. So far, California regulators have taken a clear stance on the timelines they set.

Owners of rest stops also have concerns. Lisa Mullings is managing director at Natso, an industry group that represents truck stops and travel centers and is another study sponsor. She said Natso members are preparing for the energy transition but want more help from utilities in building microgrids – standalone energy producers that use solar or wind energy and bypass the grid – so they can have more control over electricity prices.

“Travel centers have found that business barriers could be overcome if they could manage their own electricity [in a way] “This didn’t require them to sell electricity to drivers at exorbitant costs just to break even,” Mullings said.

No one said transitioning away from fossil fuels would be easy.

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