Electric Semi-Trucks Enter Race Toward Reaching Zero Emissions

Albertsons procured the Volvo VNR Electric trucks as part of the Volvo LIGHTS (Low Impact Green Heavy Transport Solutions) project, a collaboration between Volvo Trucks North America and 13 other organizations to develop a blueprint to successfully introduce battery electric trucks and equipment into the North American transport industry at scale.

Brett Pope, director of electric vehicles at Greensboro, N.C.-based Volvo Trucks North America, says that the VNR Electric is available in both tractor and straight truck configurations to meet a variety of demands, including those that grocers face. “A battery electric vehicle works well in distribution segments that operate in fixed geographic areas to help address charging needs and take advantage of recapturing energy through regenerative braking,” he notes. “Supermarkets that make constant deliveries to retail locations, for instance, are a good fit.”

Pope adds that the VNR Electric can support an operating range of up to 150 miles based on the truck’s configuration, and also has the capability to recharge to an 80% level of battery energy within 70 minutes.

Another grocery company that’s testing the waters with electrification is Providence, R.I.-based wholesaler United Natural Foods (UNFI). The company revealed in May that it’s adding 53 all-electric TRUs to its fleet at the company’s Riverside, Calif., distribution center. UNFI is removing 53 of its diesel-powered TRUs from operation and using AEM to rebuild the units to all-electric specifications. The company will lease the TRUs through Newark, N.J.-based PLM Trailer Leasing for five years while it continues to explore how they integrate into its operations. UNFI anticipates that the electric TRUs will help it save 135,000 gallons of diesel fuel per year.

Looking on the supplier side, Rundle points to St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch as an early mover in using electric trucks. “The application of a beer truck delivering beer in a city is a perfect case for battery electric, where there are lots of stop starts and you have to travel at a very low speed,” she observes.

Infrastructure Challenges

For now, the industry will likely continue with short-range tests like these as it waits for the infrastructure for electric commercial vehicles to catch up. A recent report from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California highlights a lack of current policies regarding adoption incentives, charging infrastructure and electricity pricing that so far have prevented the widespread electrification of commercial trucking fleets. The report argues that policies are needed to jump-start the widespread usage of electric long-haul trucks.

On the federal level, the Biden administration has earmarked $174 billion from the president’s infrastructure plan to advance domestic supply chains for electric vehicles, including advanced technologies for batteries, and infrastructure for charging. As of late June, President Biden was still in bipartisan talks with lawmakers about his proposals.

Meanwhile, there are incentives available to help entice companies to go electric. For instance, California has a voucher program to encourage companies to trade in vehicles for electric versions, and there are credits for zero-emission vehicles linked to current legislation.

As Volvo’s Pope observes: “To introduce electric trucks into operation, there needs to be consideration of more than just the truck. Charging infrastructure is crucial to enabling vehicles to enhance uptime. It is important to address this early on, as each site will be different, and lead times will vary to install infrastructure, based on the current needs and future capabilities. As an example, Volvo Trucks has been working with partners like Greenlots through the Volvo LIGHTS project to help build out the necessary charging infrastructure.”

He continues, “While the evolution of [electric] products will continue to address the needs of commercial transport solutions, it will take collaboration and partnerships with many key stakeholders to be successful.”

In the meantime, Rundle advises companies to consider power upgrades that may be necessary to support the charging of electric trucks. “If you’re ordering a battery electric truck that you’re going to have delivered in the next few years, you’d better start today, also talking to your local utility about upgrades to the power coming into the facility,” she says.

Even though the industry isn’t there yet, Rundle remains bullish on the future of electric long-haul trucks. “Moving forward to 2030 or 2035, if you look at where battery technology is going to go, and also the advancement of charging capabilities, then the idea of an electric long-haul truck starts to become more feasible,” she maintains.

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