Among the questions asked about battery-electric trucks: Can the grid handle the transition? - Photo: Freightliner

Among the questions asked about battery-electric trucks: Can the grid handle the transition?

Photo: Freightliner

Some “electric skeptics” took exception to Senior Contributing Editor Jack Roberts’ recent Truck Tech blog by the same title, in which he said he's convinced that electric commercial vehicles are going a big hit with fleets because of their performance and drivability.

Commenters on the blog, however, pointed out that no matter how well electric vehicles perform during a test drive, there are many unanswered questions: Cost of ownership, reliability, battery life, cold-weather operations, whether the power grid can handle it, getting them repaired, payload tradeoffs, charging infrastructure, range, and so on.

One 40-plus-year industry veteran who works on the dealer side contacted Roberts directly to share some thoughts on commercial EVs and agreed to allow us to publish them if we did not identify the author. Below you’ll find that letter, followed by our editor’s response.

Questioning EV Realities

I read your article on electric vehicles. I am a supporter of alternative transportation that makes sense long term, not necessarily short-term views.

I have some questions on electric vehicles. We have put in place a couple of these to our customers, and their usage is more for compliance and good press than practical use. The power grid in these locations cannot withstand installation of a charger that is capable of make these vehicles remotely feasible. The charging rate they are forced to use reduces the operating time of the vehicle greatly.

If all the OEs, heavy-duty and passenger, have this huge swing to electric — how is the power grid to support that?  

Companies are telling us it will take two to three years to do a site survey and get the power grid at our dealership ready to install just one charger for one truck at a time.  

Call me a simpleton, but that math does not add up. Texas didn’t have enough power last winter, without all this electrification, and we can’t update a massive national power grid overnight.  

And how is this power produced?  Shutting down coal, shutting down nuclear? Wind power has certainly taken some hits lately, as early units are coming out of service and creating problems on their own.  

How efficient are EVs, really? I’ve read articles that I have not researched fully, but in carbon footprint, electric vehicles are not any better than conventional vehicles. In many cases, they are worse. Articles state that true comparisons are in the low 20-mpg, factoring in the production of the electricity required. What good are they then at lowering carbon footprint?  

What is going to happen with the batteries and all the massive mining sites to get the lithium needed for these batteries 20 years from now? It seems like some of the groups supporting alternative fuels are also concerned with environment, and so we all should be. Has research been done into the effect on the environment if a large percentage of vehicles are soon electric? 

It certainly seems to be that hydrogen powered vehicles are not getting their due. If Elon would be all about hydrogen instead of electric, would this be a different discussion today? 

I think we need alternatives. But is electrical the right choice, or have companies done a fantastic job of persuading consumers down the most profitable path? 

The Author Responds

Thanks for taking the time to write. You’re certainly not wrong about many of these points, some of which I’ve addressed in other articles, but there are only so many issues I can address in a 500-word blog.

Infrastructure has certainly emerged as a major stumbling block. I suppose it wasn’t addressed sooner because there was so much uncertainty as to whether or not these vehicles would actually become mainstream consumer items. It now appears that is happening. So this will, without a doubt, be the next major story on the electric front.

As for the carbon footprint and the environmental impact arguments, from my perspective, the jury is still out. I’ve heard compelling arguments from both sides of the equation, and I don’t doubt that currently, your assessment of the situation is likely accurate. On the other hand, this assumes that we can’t or won’t make changes in the future to address those issues; we can certainly make moves to clean up mining operations globally. And, assuming the current trends toward green power continue (as well as a renewed focus on nuclear, which I think will simply have to happen at some point) that would certainly address the carbon footprint issues you point to. 

The final point is hydrogen, which seems to be a bit behind the EV push. I finally got to drive one last week for the first time and was also impressed by how it performed. And I do think this will be the game-changer farther out, particularly on the long-haul side of things.

But, again, assuming this technology proves out as well, there will be major fueling infrastructure issues that will have to be sorted out. (Bear in mind that 120 years ago, there were no gas stations anywhere. If you were in a strange town and needed fuel for your Model T, the local hardware store was probably your best bet.)

My point in this latest blog was simply that, all of these legitimate issues you point out aside, the electric trucks drive and perform extremely well. Surprisingly well, in fact. But, as you say, there’s still a long way to go on this front and a lot of things we know we don’t know about the longer/wider impact of large numbers of EVS.

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