When was the last time you had to pause a phone conversation because a transport truck pulled up beside you? Perhaps you’ve been startled on the highway by the staccato burp of engine brakes? Who hasn’t experienced the unpleasant noise and noxious fumes chugging out of a semi?

This ubiquitous pollution is not just annoying, research has shown that exposure to loud transport noise can increase your risk of heart disease. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) describes diesel exhaust as carcinogenic and recommends, “replacing diesel powered engines with electric or other types of power sources.”

It may come as a surprise that electrification of the transport trucking industry is well underway. In addition to the oddly futuristic Tesla semi, all major manufacturers, including Peterbilt, Volvo, Kenworth, Scania and Mack have electric-semi models available today.

The long distances between population centres in Canada will likely delay market adoption, but California has wholeheartedly embraced a forward-looking plan to electrify medium- and heavy-duty vehicles (MHDVs).

California is the world’s 5th largest economy with a GDP of $3.9 trillion in 2023, and the transportation of goods around the state is responsible for a significant amount of cancer-causing and climate-heating air pollutants.

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) states, “while medium-duty and heavy-duty vehicles make up only six per cent of the vehicles registered with the California DMV, they account for over 20 per cent of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and almost 50 per cent of emissions from oxides of nitrogen (NOx).”

The state legislature of California has implemented specific and aggressive sales targets including 55 per cent of Class 2b-3 truck sales, 75 per cent of Class 4-8 straight truck sales, and 40 per cent of truck tractor sales by 2035. Canada’s federal government also has plans to introduce sales targets for MHDVs and are suggesting 35 per cent of sales by 2030 and 100 per cent by 2040.

Sceptics cite the many challenges of achieving these targets and often focus on the high cost of electricity grid upgrades that can’t possibly be implemented fast enough. But as Michael Barnard describes in Clean Technica, batteries will support the rise in charging demand without requiring more costly and time-consuming grid upgrades. Rather than rushing to upgrade transformers and transmission lines to support truck stop chargers, large scale batteries will provide energy storage in the same way fuel tanks hold sufficient diesel to meet daily demand. Storage batteries can be filled during off-peak hours at lower prices and hold enough charge to support demand during the busiest and most profitable hours of the day.

Adding large batteries to filling stations will be economically feasible due to the plummeting cost of energy storage. Chinese battery manufacturer CATL is forecasting a 50 per cent cost reduction in its Lithium (Li) / Iron (Fe) / Phosphate (PO) LFP batteries by the end of 2024.

It may come as a surprise that electrification of the transport trucking industry is well underway, writes Rob Miller @winexus #cdnpoli

LFP batteries are slightly less energy dense than standard lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles (EVs), but they don’t use nickel and cobalt. Their low cost makes them ideal for energy storage applications, or lower-cost EVs that don’t offer as much range.

The concept of using energy storage at truck stops should be well received by electricity grid operators and utilities because the demand on the system will be lower and more consistent over a 24-hour period. The batteries will be charged continuously at predictable rates and can even be called upon to supply the grid when generators are unable to meet demand.

According to Barnard, this type of system will allow transformer upgrades that can be completed within a year versus a multi-year process that would be required for much larger transformers designed to handle a truck stop’s peak charging capacity.

Truck stops can also install solar panels or wind turbines to charge their batteries, further reducing demand on the grid and lowering their energy costs. Since truck stops are typically located along major highways surrounded by farmland, operators have the option to install renewable energy on their property or lease land from neighbouring farms.

As the market share of EV trucking continues to grow, larger grid upgrades may eventually be required, but battery energy storage systems (BESS) will make the transition faster and more cost efficient when early adoption rates are low. This will provide valuable time to plan and install the grid upgrades, based on emerging demand for EV charging.

Silhouettes of a charging electric truck, and wind turbines, getting electricity from renewable energy sources. Photo by Shutterstock

Although we are in the early stages of growth in the electric medium- and heavy-duty vehicle market, CARB recently released a report that noted electrification of MHDV’s was nearly two years ahead of schedule with sales doubling in 2023. Since 2021, over 25,000 MHDV zero-emissions vehicles have been sold in the sunshine state.

California may be the vanguard of transportation’s energy transition in North America, but their efforts will provide the example, experience and knowledge that many other districts will desperately want to emulate when the economic and environmental advantages of EVs become irrefutable.

In Canada, the polls suggest voters will reject a federal government that has developed policies to emulate California’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the transport sector. For decades former federal governments on both sides of the political spectrum paid lip service to climate policy and did nothing. Despite a majority of Canadians expressing a strong desire to act on climate change, we appear to be willing to vote against all the federal policies and legislation that have been established to date.

It’s unlikely people will consider electric MHDV sales targets or policies to help truck stop owners install energy storage and charging outlets when they choose the next government. But these are exactly the policies we need to move away from a transport system that is contributing to disastrous planetary heating.

Truck manufacturers have made significant investments in developing viable electrified products, but this effort will be wasted if governments fail to provide the infrastructure and policy directives to support them.

Californians have been stepping up because they understand the connection between global warming, droughts, wildfires and extreme heat. Will Canadians do the same?

Rob Miller is a retired systems engineer, formerly with General Dynamics Canada, who now volunteers with the Calgary Climate Hub and writes on behalf of Eco-Elders for Climate Action, but any opinions expressed in his work are his own.

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Exemplary report. Thank you.