The 50 battery-electric trucks deployed through the JETSI project will offset approximately 4,400 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions yearly.  -  Photo: JETSI

The 50 battery-electric trucks deployed through the JETSI project will offset approximately 4,400 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions yearly.

Photo: JETSI

NFI had just gotten into the West Coast drayage business in a big way with the 2017 purchase of CalCartage when Elon Musk unveiled the Tesla Semi electric truck. NFI executives immediately saw drayage as an ideal use case for such a truck.

So NFI’s team went to talk to its legacy truck makers.

“We said, ‘If this is something you’re thinking about, we want to be a part of it,” says Jim O’Leary, VP of Assets for New Jersey-based NFI.

The following year, NFI and Penske were chosen to test Freightliner’s electric trucks as part of its Innovation Fleet, followed by being part of the Volvo LIGHTS project, both of which were designed to get real-world input into Class 8 electric-truck development.

It’s a journey that has led NFI to the official unveiling Feb. 27 of 50 Class 8 electric trucks, running out of a new electric charging depot at its warehouse in Ontario, California.

The JETSI Project

NFI’s battery-electric fleet is used to run drayage routes from Ontario to the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The 30 Freightliner eCascadia and 20 Volvo VNR Electric trucks typically runs two port pickups per day, per truck, for an average of 220 miles driven between being recharged.

When NFI was running those earlier versions of the eCascadia and VNR Electric, O’Leary says, they could only go about 180 miles before charging.

“We were challenging the OEs, saying, ‘I need a truck to go two trips to the port on a single charge, and they delivered a truck that does that.”

It’s the latest milestone for the Joint Electric Truck Scaling Initiative, or JETSI, first announced in 2021. Last year, the other fleet in the program, Schneider, unveiled its California all-electric fleet and facility, running the trucks on regional routes.

JETSI was jointly financed by California Air Resources Board and the California Energy Commission, with additionl funding from South Coast Air Quality Management District, the Mobile Source Air Pollution Reduction Review Committee, the San Pedro Bay Ports, and Southern California Edison.

Charging Infrastructure

NFI collaborated with Southern California Edison and Electrify America to develop its new charging depot, supporting refueling speeds up to 350 kW for capable trucks.

When fully completed, it will feature roughly 7 megawatts of DC charging capacity shared across 38 individual DC fast chargers.

Later this year, solar power will be added to the equation with the installation of solar panels on the roof of the NFI warehouse adjacent to the charging facility. Solar and grid power are stored in onsite battery storage.

Jim O'Leary, vice president of assets for NFI, addresses the audience at the official unveiling of the new electric-truck facility February 27.  -  Photo: JETSI

Jim O'Leary, vice president of assets for NFI, addresses the audience at the official unveiling of the new electric-truck facility February 27.

Photo: JETSI

Getting the battery-electric trucks is not the problem, O'Leary says. The problem is charging infrastructure. One thing NFI learned from those early demonstration projects with Volvo and DTNA is some of the challenges involved.

“We weren’t trying to do anything crazy,” he says. “We were trying to put five chargers in both those projects and that alone was 12-18 months.”

The new charging facility in Ontario took close to three years. With 38 350-kW chargers, each capable of serving two trucks at a time, and a distributed energy microgrid, it was a more complex challenge than the demonstration fleets.

Those complexities required medium-voltage switchgear, which it was unable to get, thanks to the supply chain disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those are supposed to arrive in the next month or so, O’Leary says, which will allow NFI “to turn the rest of the site on.”

Another challenge were some “interesting” California Public Utility Commission rules, he adds.

“I don’t think anyone was thinking about mass deployment of electric tucks when some of the utility rules were written,” O’Leary says.

Future-Proofing the Charging Site

The trucks actually can’t take the full 350-kW charge, but O’Leary says they were trying to future-proof the site as much as possible. The Volvo VNL Electrics have a 250-kWh capacity, the Freightliner around 250, O’Leary says.

The Volvo VNL Electrics have a 250-kW charging rate, the Freightliner around 170 on a single-port charge, O’Leary says.

“I can almost be empty and charge the Volvo in about 90 minutes to two hours. The Daimler takes a little longer, but it’s still quicker than the previous generation of tech that existed with the 150-kW chargers we still have in operations today.

“When we're fully up and running, we’ll have the ability to basically charge 7 megawatts of power at a time, which is enough power to charge the Empire State Building.”

Or, another way to look at it: What it takes to power just two electric trucks' work for a day is the same amount of power that it would be to power a normal house in America for a month, he says.

NFI's battery-electric day cabs make two runs a day to and from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach on a single charge.  -  Photo: JETSI

NFI's battery-electric day cabs make two runs a day to and from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach on a single charge.

Photo: JETSI

Battery Storage

“When we really thought about building this site, we wanted to future-proof the site as much as possible,” O’Leary says. Thus the 350-kW-capacity chargers, even though the trucks aren’t yet capable of handling that much power.

“But we also wanted to have this resiliency built-in, this ability to take advantage of the cheapest electricity rates as possible.”

So NFI charges the on-site battery from the grid when rates are the lowest (and will be storing solar energy in it once that comes online), then charges the trucks from the on-site battery storage.

“If I didn’t have the battery, then I’m just plugging in [to the grid] and the rate structure, peak charge is between 4 and 9 p.m., and I’m going to pay a premium to charge my trucks at this time.”

The solar panels, once installed, will provide a megawatt of power. Because the facility is next to an NFI warehouse, it’s able to install the solar panels on the warehouse roof rather than having to build structures to hold the solar panels.

Working with the Utility

One of the first conversations a fleet should have when it comes to a project like this is with their utility provider, O’Leary says.

“Once you've defined your application, and you figure out where you want to do a project like this, once it becomes even remotely real, you call the utility and they do a site survey and they’ll tell you right then and there if they could deliver the power or not to that facility.”

Fortunately for NFI, the utility rep who came out to do their site survey told them, “I could drop 12 megawatts tomorrow if you need it.”

“Other companies haven't been so lucky, and then you’re taking that timeline that you have for a project, let’s say it's 18 months at minimum, and you’re basically doubling it for them to do the upstream infrastructure improvement.”

If NFI had been trying to do this in a more urban location where the electric infrastructure is likely older, it would have been far less likely to have that kind of ability.

In fact, he says, “NFI owns and operates 20 million square feet of warehousing in Southern California, and I couldn't do this project at any of those locations because I need the space, I need the place to park all the tractors. We had to actually procure our a different yard for this project.”

Fortunately they were able to acquire a piece of property that formerly housed RV and boat storage adjacent to an Ontario warehouse — which happened to be the first warehouse NFI bought in California back in the 1990s.

“So we were able to kind of extend our footprint on that street and now it's this state of the art charging facility and maintenance facility.”

Maintenance Shop for BEVs

NFI’s newly inaugurated electric truck maintenance shop at the site is also operational. It’s strikingly clean compared to a diesel shop, without all the lines snaking overhead for oil and other fluids. No need for oil/water separators.

“Right now that floor is spotless,” O’Leary says. “No oil drips, nothing. And I think it’s always going to look clean.”

That means a better work environment for technicians, he says. “The drivers love how they don’t smell like diesel, they don’t have diesel oil on their hands and under their fingernails. And the technicians, it's the same. The quality of life should improve for our technicians and our drivers.”

NFI's new facility includes a maintenance shop designed for work on electric trucks.  -  Photo: JETSI

NFI's new facility includes a maintenance shop designed for work on electric trucks.

Photo: JETSI

But the shop is not yet performing all the maintenance and repair a typical diesel shop would.

“We said, if we’re going to have 50 to 60 tractors or more parking and domicile at this location, if this was a diesel yard, we would have our own maintenance facility,” O’Leary says.

However, he says, “the manufacturers still aren’t comfortable with kind of handing you the keys.”

Volvo requires a maintenance agreement as part of the purchase of the VNR Electric, he says. Freightliner has been offering U.S. training for technicians.

“There are three levels of high-voltage certification,” O’Leary says. “Our technicians at that site are trained to High Voltage 2 at this time. Now we’re having conversations with Daimler on how we get to High Voltage 3.”

O’Leary wants to be able to turn a truck repair around in his own shop in a day, rather than the several days they are out of service having to be maintained and repaired at the dealer.

This is another aspect, he says, of electric-truck adoption needing to be comparable to diesel.

“We talk about a diesel-like transition on the performance of the vehicle. We talk about a diesel-like transition on the total cost of the vehicle, on the fueling. We need maintenance to be the same, right?”

NFI is working to get its technicians certified to work with high voltage.  -  Photo: JETSI

NFI is working to get its technicians certified to work with high voltage.

Photo: JETSI

Continued BEV Fleet Growth

By the end of 2024, O’Leary says, NFI should have a total of 90 electric Class 8 tractors (60 Volvos and 30 Freightliners) plus 10 electric yard tractors operating at the Ontario site.

Initially the company had expected to reach that number last year, but there were difficulties getting the trucks from the manufacturers. (O'Leary says those problems have largely been worked out and he can now order a battery-electric truck and get it in four to five months.)

Funding for the additional trucks is coming from other sources than the JETSI project. Some more Volvo VNR Electrics are coming with the help of the he SWITCH-ON project, a grant to Volvo Trucks to deploy 70 battery-electric trucks in Southern California for regional freight distribution and drayage.

The remainder are being funded with the help of California’s HVIP (Hybrid and Zero-Emission Truck and Bus Voucher Incentive Project).

“At the end of the day, we know that the total cost is ownership is not there yet,” O’Leary says. “And you still need the incentives to make projects like these work at this point in time.”

Those incentives, he says, need to cover not just the cost of the tractor, but also the charging infrastructure, and the cost of the electricity, he says. “The price of electricity is not always cheaper than diesel, and people seem to forget that.”

O’Leary says the BEV truck adoption fit well with NFI’s overall three-prong strategy, which is innovation, people, and customer value. “ZEV freight touches on all three,” he says.

Southern California Warehouses

NFI operates both warehouses and trucks in southern California, so it’s keenly aware of another aspect of zero-emissions regulations affecting it and its customers – the Warehouse Indirect Source Rule (ISR), enacted by the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

Every diesel truck visit counts against the warehouse operator in a points-based system. On the other side of the balance sheet, warehouse owners/operators can offset those diesel truck trips and reduce fees by taking certain emission-reducing actions and adding zero-emission truck trips to the site.

South Coast AQMD’s goal is to incentivize warehouses to favor zero-emission trucks by charging fees for diesel-truck visits. Warehouses also can earn points through WAIRE (Warehouse Actions and Investments to Reduce Emissions) to offset the diesel truck points.

NFI is the second largest creator of WAIRE credits in California, O’Leary says.

And back to NFI's three strategic prongs, he points out, this offers a great deal of value to its customers.

Advice for Fleets on Adopting Battery-Electric Trucks

Asked about his advice for other fleets on electrification, O’Leary says, “You gotta start early. You can't turn these things on overnight.

“And then you need to surround yourself with experts and partners. We're fleets at the end of the day. Granted, we’ve developed a knowledge base, but we’re still not the experts. And we're a relatively mature and sophisticated organization; but we're not the norm in this industry.

NFI is sharing their project so other fleets can learn from their deployment.  -  Photo: JETSI

NFI is sharing their project so other fleets can learn from their deployment.

Photo: JETSI

“So when you go to the small fleets, if they’re going to do a project like this, they should know that they don't have to do it themselves.”

That could be truck manufacturers, utilities, charging providers, consultants such as GNA, truck dealers, and others.

“There are people that do this and that they can trust to help them deliver whatever solutions there are.”

About the author
Deborah Lockridge

Deborah Lockridge

Editor and Associate Publisher

Reporting on trucking since 1990, Deborah is known for her award-winning magazine editorials and in-depth features on diverse issues, from the driver shortage to maintenance to rapidly changing technology.

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