In the next couple of years, electric trucks will begin showing on dealer lots around the country. And their success or failure in vocational delivery applications – and perhaps even some regional applications – will depend largely on the capabilities of the battery systems they use and their ability to recharge in a convenient and timely manner.
Paul Stith, director, strategy & innovation for Black and Veatch, a global consulting firm that specializes in advanced energy and infrastructure, says that a “perfect” tornado is pushing electric truck technology at an exponential rate today. And while there are definite shortcomings in terms of vehicle range and charging infrastructure today, change is coming swiftly with the potential to transform this market segment at an astounding rate.
HDT: What is happening with battery technology today for electric trucks today?
Stith: There are really two main development thrusts today: Developing larger batteries specifically for electric truck applications as well as work being done to define the coming standards for charging capabilities: 1.5 to potentially 2 megawatts of charging capability to deliver faster charging times.
HDT: Battery costs are going down, though, correct?
Stith: Yes. The costs that go into a battery itself, along with the associated costs of integrating a battery into a package, cooling that system and all the other things that make electric truck batteries are going down as well. If you’re looking at battery costs in terms of raw storage capability, a decade ago, you were talking about costs of $1,000 or more per kWh. Today, according to Bloomberg, those prices around $208 per kWh and Elon Musk has said he thinks we’ll see that drop below $150 per kWh. And the bulk of that price decrease has occurred over the past couple of years, beginning in 2016 and continuing through 2017 into this year as manufacturing capacity comes online.
HDT: Why are those prices falling so quickly?
Stith: If you look back to 2008, we were seeing a 7% to 8% price decrease every year, just like clockwork. But then, as interest in electric cars first, buses and then trucks began to heat up, we suddenly got into a much larger picture where everything started happening at once. Today, we’re seeing work on multiple fronts making breakthroughs: The cost of raw materials has gone down with large supply agreements, there’s been a big drive to reduce the amount of cobalt used in energy cells, the composition of materials inside batteries are changing and we’re learning much more about power and cell density in batteries – literally how to pack more energy into a battery, cool them efficiently and keep them safe. The result is better battery systems with higher energy potential that weigh less and can be recharged faster. And we are still making progress with this relatively new technology.
HDT: So when people talk about “energy density” in battery, that’s a literal concept?
Stith: Yes. That’s exactly what designers are succeeding in today. At the beginning of this rapid evolution were battery cells used in everyday laptop computers, power tools, the Tesla Roadster, Model S and X, which used a 18650 cell. With volume costs began to fall following the economies of large scale production. Now, with the advent of the Tesla Model 3, Tesla is focusing on using a 2170 cell format while others are perfecting prismatic and pouch cell designs. Larger diameter cells and other formats can hold more energy and distribute that energy more efficiently than before. Which means that the cost per cell – and everything associated with that technology – is going down. And now researchers are finding more ways to jam even more cells more closely into a battery packs. And everyone it seems is getting in the game. Battery suppliers, vehicle OEMs, powertrain providers - Panasonic, Samsung, LG, Daimler, Volvo, Tesla, Thor, Proterra, Cummins, Meritor – just to name a few companies – all working on this technology like crazy. So we’re in a continuous evolution of the lithium ion battery now that shows no signs of stopping, or even slowing down.
HDT: Combined with, as you noted, simultaneous development of other, related technologies.
Stith: Exactly. So what we have now is a “Tornado Effect” that is intensifying. One prime example is the parallel development of sophisticated electronics that can drive electric motors and leverage computing power to distribute the energy stored in batteries in amazing ways. Just look at the advances made in electric motor control systems over the past few years and you’ll see what I’m talking about. There are systems that can make multiple power flow adjustments in milliseconds to respond to whatever a driver is dealing with. That’s one reason Tesla says its Semi Trucks will never jackknife – because the truck’s electric motor control systems won’t allow it.
HDT: With all the work that’s going into electric vehicles today, it seems that the charging infrastructure side of the equation is lacking, though.
Stith: That’s an important point. With all the great stuff going on in labs today, we want to make sure that as energy density moves upstream, charging infrastructure is not left to chance. And that is kind of the case at the moment.
HDT: Do you see the impetus coming more from the private sector on the infrastructure front?
Stith: It’s a new conversation. And people don’t seem to grasp what their needs will be on the fleet side of things. Certainly, converting a shop from gasoline or diesel trucks to electric vehicles will be easier than converting to a CNG facility, for example. Because you won’t need to work with liquid or gaseous fuel supply chains. But we’re still talking about a new paradigm with a super-sized grid connections, new power lines, transformers and on-site switch gear to feed high-power chargers. All of these things are capital-intensive and will take time. And we’re working with fleets now to get ahead of facility upgrades and long lead time investments. Because we are confident electric trucks are going to be a success story. But we don’t want to be at a point in a few years where the first adopters have proven the concept and we’re ready to go to full-scale deployment only to find that the trucks and technology are ready to go, but charging infrastructure is not.
HDT: What kind of infrastructure do you think we’re going to need?
Stith: It’s clear we will need pervasive infrastructure that covers were vehicles naturally convene – supporting ports, rail yards, warehousing and distribution hubs. Thinking ahead, anywhere you can go now in a conventional powered vehicle electric truck drivers won’t worry about refueling. Truck stops are another logical starting point. But there’s also a profound lack of understanding just how much electrical power we’re taking about. If you look at a typical, large, refrigerated warehouse today, it’s probably rated at something around 400 kw of power. That’s enough energy to recharge just one electric truck overnight. So we’re talking about significant upgrades in power distribution. Electric trucks in an over-night charging configuration will have about the same charging requirements as electric transit buses we are working with today. Electric bus depots are trending toward chargers that put out about 100 kw per vehicle. So, if you’re recharging 10 vehicles, you need roughly a megawatt of power. Scaling to 50, 100 or more, you’re going to be looking at shops needing 5, 10 or 20 megawatts of power delivered.
HDT: So, we’re talking about significant work that has to be done just on basic recharging requirements.
Stith: Right. And if you’re looking at power loads these levels, it can take years to plan for and build substations and new overhead or underground distribution lines. We are not trying to scare people on this front, but we do think it’s time to start serious conversations between utilities and fleets about these issues and make sure that we have a cost-effective plan in place to keep up with the needs of large scale deployment of electric trucks.