Gearing up to drive onto the electric highway to a future of cleaner, quieter and more efficient trucking operations? Beyond selecting and spec’ing electric trucks, the way forward to widescale EV adoption must include planning and installing fleet-specific charging infrastructure. Experts recommend fleets not take a piecemeal approach to this, but instead, aim to devise an integrated strategy that will enable jointly launching electric trucks and charging infrastructure.
“Successfully introducing electric vehicles begins in the early planning stages with strong collaboration between the fleet operator and either the vehicle manufacturer or their partners to design the right charging infrastructure solutions,” says Brendan Harney, vice president of Proterra Energy, a maker of fleet EV chargers that has installed more than 65 megawatts of distributed energy infrastructure across North America.
“The planning and design phases include not only identifying the right chargers for a given fleet, but also understanding the operational bounds — when a vehicle is likely to be available to charge, how long it needs to charge to be ready for the next shift, and likely battery consumption while in service.”
Harney said in Proterra’s experience as a vehicle manufacturer, a battery technology supplier and a charging solutions provider, it has found the integrated view to be helpful for customers as they ramp up their electric fleets.
Fleet Electrification Starts with Data Analytics
Fleet electrification is a complex topic, says Jan Freimann, vice president of energy services for Ideanomics, which includes brands such as U.S. Hybrid and Wave wireless EV charging.
“Typically, you start with an assessment, supported by a data analytics tool, of the fleet and facility requirements and operations schedule, as well as gathering information about the available infrastructure and power on site,” he says.
The next step, he says, is to model the detailed cost of ownership for different scenarios with a variety of charging, energy, and vehicle solutions.
“You can also identify potential opportunities for optimizations by shuffling vehicles between facilities or by including opportunity-charging options in the model,” he says.
That modeling exercise goes into developing a comprehensive plan for developing, permitting, installing, managing, and financing this transition, including consideration of grants and incentives.
Ideanomics works with commercial fleets to “help reduce the complexity of the transition to electric.” Freimann advises fleets just beginning the electrification process to:
- Start earlier than you think you need to.
- Get deeply engaged with your vehicle and charging solutions providers.
- Plan for change.
John Vernacchia, director of Eaton’s energy transition segment, concurs on thinking ahead. “The fleet operator has to begin far in advance of when an electric truck is going to be delivered. Otherwise, it’s too late.”
The first step is identifying which of a fleet’s trucks are a good candidate to electrify first. This decision should be based on the duty cycle, the sustainability goals of the fleet, the appetite for capital expenditures, the age of the trucks and what’s due to be replaced when, what’s available from vehicle OEMs, and other business-specific factors, he explains.
Then, based on the specs of the EV and the duty cycle, the fleet must decide what type of charging will best support its goals: AC L2 for overnight charging or DC for fast charging, Vernacchia says.
He says it’s best to lay out a five- to 10-year plan for fleet electrification and start working on the infrastructure to support it.
If the available service from a utility is not enough for a fleet’s needs, he says, “the fleet operator has an option to deploy onsite DER (distributed energy resources) software to supplement [power from] the utility and add resiliency or try and work with the utility to increase service size.”
For Ontario, California-based Dependable Supply Chain Services — one of the first firms in the Volvo LIGHTS fleet electrification project — its current handful of battery-electric trucks are charged by renewable energy generated on site.
“We actually are putting surplus kilowatt hours — 80 to 90% of the solar power is put into the grid,” says Troy Musgrave, director of process improvement for the fleet. “We pull some of that back at night because we don’t have battery storage systems on site that we can accumulate this and use it. But it’s still offsetting every kWh measured by the utility. The size of our system is good for today. However, if I were to electrify the entire fleet here in Ontario, every mile driven, it would require 10 times the amount of energy I generate today.”
Another challenge is deploying charging infrastructure rapidly, together with the electrified trucks, says Mihai Dorobantu, Eaton’s director of technology planning and government affairs. “In fact, some of our OEM customers are offering fleet customers EVCI [electric vehicle charging infrastructure] solutions,” he says.
Dorobantu says the company is working with the Department of Energy on novel solutions, such as “what’s sometimes dubbed a ‘charging station on a grid’ that can quickly deploy in a parking lot or outside a facility.”
Charging is about planning, says Proterra’s Harney. “To maximize the amount of time that any vehicle is on the road, it’s important for fleet planners to understand when a vehicle is likely to be available to charge and how long it will need to charge to be ready for the next shift,” he says. “Establishing a charge window that provides more than enough downtime for a vehicle to fully recharge before the next shift enables greater flexibility.”
He points out that electric trucks typically have larger batteries that need to be charged in a shorter time than a typical passenger vehicle. Because of that, most commercial electric vehicles are designed to use DC fast charging, which can charge a vehicle much faster than a residential AC charger.
“If, however, the charge window is shorter than the recharge time, or the vehicle’s battery capacity is too small for a full shift of operation, opportunity charging [recharging whenever it is convenient] may be required,” he says.
According to Dorobantu, “opportunity charging” refers to the ability to partially charge vehicles while they are executing their mission.
“An example is a bus that is charged overnight at the depot, but may be recharged for 5 to 10 minutes at select stations while on its route,” he says. “This type of operation allows vehicle owners to specify smaller batteries, which results in lower cost and weight.”
He adds that the future of opportunity charging seems to be “inductive, contactless charging with coils built under the road surface.”
What it Takes to Keep Commercial Vehicle Chargers Running
Along with selecting vehicles and determining charging infrastructure, keep in mind the training that must be done — not only for drivers and vehicle technicians, but for maintaining the chargers themselves.
Ideanomic’s Freimann says changing filters, checking coolant levels, and updating software is a simple but integral part of charger maintenance.
“We inform our customers that bi-yearly maintenance schedules are key in extending the life of the products,” he says.
He adds that adhering to a regular maintenance schedule not only keeps the charger running at maximum power, but also ensures that the fleet’s operations are not impacted.
“From a safety perspective,” Freimann says, “all systems are meant to be maintained and repaired by certified electricians with the necessary know-how. A few years ago, the local electrician could easily diagnose a broken charger. Today, Master EVSE Technicians must have a high level of diagnostic capability in fields such as component diagnosis, energy transfer, cooling systems, communication, telecommunications, and basic electric vehicle charging knowledge. All this knowledge is built upon a sound foundation of advanced high-voltage safety training.”
Avoiding charger downtime is one of the frustrations for Musgrave.
“The supply side of this, like parts for chargers, the things you need to repair a charger, and the service technicians available to service your chargers, is very immature,” he says. “There aren’t many of them. It’s been my experience that a charger could be down for weeks or months, because of part availability and/or technician availability.”
Integrating Chargers, Batteries and Electric Trucks
Another point Musgrave emphasizes is the need for chargers, batteries and electric trucks to communicate.
“When you have a battery management system and a charger management system, these two things have to talk,” he says. “And if they’re not compatible, you don’t get to charge. It takes the battery manufacturer, the charger manufacturer, and the truck manufacturer to get together and make sure these things sync up. “
Ensuring a fleet’s chargers and management software will “talk” to each other seamlessly is known as interoperability, according to Ideanomic’s Freimann.
“Interoperability regarding chargers and software means the ability to operate any software and any charging and energy hardware with each other because they are standard conforming; that is, they are compliant to publicly available technical standards published by standardization organizations,” he explains.
“Interoperable software and hardware ensure that any certified software will work with any certified charger, regardless of brand or plug type,” he says. “As a fleet, you never want to back yourself into a corner with a software or hardware manufacturer. You want the freedom to do what is best for your fleet, and interoperability is central to ensuring that freedom is maintained.”
Fortunately, there has been some good news out Washington lately on investing in EV infrastructure.
Help on the Horizon: Policies to Help the Commercial EV Sector
Once fully implemented, the massive Inflation Reduction Act, passed last month, is expected to help drive development of charging. Amply Power, a charging-as-a-service provider, applauds this policymaking.
“Passage of the IRA is tremendously exciting for the commercial EV sector,” says Steve Koerner, Amply’s vice president of policy. “Higher sticker prices and charging infrastructure costs have remained barriers to EV adoption. The IRA addresses both. As a result, thousands of businesses large and small will soon reap the rewards of converting their fleets to EVs.”
What’s more, the federal government has announced that all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have submitted EV infrastructure deployment plans as required under the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Formula Program established and funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. These plans are required to unlock the first round of $5 billion BIL formula-funding available over five years to help states accelerate building out of the national EV charging network.
This article first appeared in the September 2022 issue of Heavy Duty Trucking.