Edvard Pettersson

LOS ANGELES (CN) — California has committed itself to phasing out the heavy-duty diesel trucks that haul containers from the ports to inland destinations by 2035, but a near complete absence of public charging stations for electric trucks presents a major obstacle for truckers to go green.

Although 2035 may seem reassuringly far off, the gap between the state's ambitions and the current lack of charging infrastructure will become much more acute as soon as Jan. 1, 2024, when under a pending proposal the California Air Resources Board will only allow zero-emission trucks to be added to the register for drayage trucks serving the ports.

That deadline, and a recent feasibility assessment issued by the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach that found little progress has been made in building out a charging infrastructure for electric trucks, has alarmed truckers who feel they are being forced along without a clear understanding of how they'll be able to operate.

"The problem is that the timeline is against us," said Matt Schrap, chief executive officer of the Harbor Trucking Association. "This is 10 months away, and the main question my members have is where is the infrastructure."

Everyday thousands of drayage trucks arrive at the ports of LA and Long Beach, the two busiest container ports in the U.S., to pick up 40-foot boxes with imports from Asia and move them to distribution centers and railyards inland. The diesel fumes from the trucks clogging the surrounding streets and freeways have long been a source of misery for the neighboring communities, and both ports have set ambitious goals to eliminate diesel trucks and equipment from the docks.

As part of their long-term strategy to reduce carbon emissions, in February the San Pedro Bay ports released an updated feasibility assessment of the current state of the technology and supporting infrastructure that's going to be needed to completely replace diesel trucks with ZE ones, either with battery or hydrogen fuel cell electric engines, by 2035.

Although electric trucks are gradually becoming commercially available in larger numbers, with big, traditional truck manufacturers and startups having entered the market, the latest assessment found the infrastructure buildout hadn't significantly moved forward in recent years and that uncertainty about how rapidly new charging stations will come online remains.

"The key is that you can't operate the trucks without the infrastructure to support them — they go hand in hand," said Chris Cannon, chief sustainability officer with the Port of LA. "We're still in the emerging phase with infrastructure, and there are a lot of concerns that we need make sure there's enough infrastructure as we begin to deploy these zero-emission drayage trucks, and there's even worry that there may not be enough."

Each year 1,500 to 2,000 drayage trucks serving the ports are retired and replaced with new ones, according to Cannon, and the proposed air resources board requirement that only ZE trucks can be added to the ports' registry starting Jan. 1, will present a huge challenge.

The ports have conducted pilot and demonstration projects with ZE trucks to make sure they can do the work currently done with diesel trucks, but in terms of providing the large-scale infrastructure for thousands of trucks to charge for hours on end, they face significant space restraints and are looking for regional solutions.

To illustrate the challenge, there are about 2,500 commercial diesel stations in Southern California and just two public charging stations for heavy-duty electric trucks, installed in the Port of Long Beach last November.

“Southern California will need a network of thousands of heavy-duty charging stations, not only at the ports but all around the region, as society moves to renewable energy to fight climate change,” Port of Long Beach executive director Mario Cordero said in announcing what were the first public charging stations for drayage trucks in the country.

According to the feasibility assessment, about 74% of an estimated 14,000 to 19,000 electric drayage trucks would require public access fast-charging stations, which would translate to an infrastructure that can accommodate 3,200 to 4,400 trucks charging their batteries simultaneously.

Although some large fleet owners will be able to build charging stations at their own sites, for which California has been providing financial incentives, many smaller businesses rent their facilities and can't have utilities bring in the electricity cables to support chargers for heavy-duty trucks. These truck owners will need to depend on public charging stations.

One company that's been taking advantage of state and federal grants to take the lead in building the needed infrastructure is Long Beach-based WattEV.

The company is not only building public charging stations at the Port of Long Beach, scheduled to go online next month, and at trucking hubs inland, but also has a Trucks-as-a-Service business where it provides an electric trucks, charging and maintenance to drayage companies for a flat monthly fee. In December, WattEV said it will be supplying 20 Volvo ZE trucks to Junction Collaborative Transports, drayage company serving the ports, as part of its full-service program.

"The trucks are still very expensive and a huge portion of the industry is made up of small owner/operators who can't necessarily afford these trucks, said Salim Youssefzadeh, WattEV's CEO.

Another early adopter that has been taking advantage of California's incentives is 4 Gen Logistics, a Rialto, California-based, family-owned drayage business. This past September, it announced it has ordered 41 Volvo and 20 Kenworth heavy-duty electric to service the ports and that the company will convert its entire fleet to ZE trucks by 2025.

The Port of Long Beach said at the 4 Gen announcement that Electrify America will install 60 public charging stations at the port to service the 4 Gen trucks as well as those of other companies. In addition, 4 Gen will install 30 charging stations at its facility in Rialto.

But in spite of these signs of progress, it's not all encouraging news. In a third-quarter update last year of the San Pedro Bay ports' Clean Air Action Plan, they noted a pilot program to provide vouchers of up to $150,000 towards the purchase of an electric truck resulted in just one application.

At around $350,000 and up, a Class 8 battery-electric truck costs about three times more than a comparable diesel truck, and although California through the state's Air Resources Board provides incentives to help truckers and trucking companies, such as 4 Gen Logistics, to at least partially cover the difference, for most truckers that is still a huge investment that they may not be able to afford.

The ports have said that will explore an alternative voucher program structure such as offering a plus-up voucher from the ports on top of the current voucher amount available from California.

Currently, the air resources board has 757 active voucher requests towards the purchase of a ZE truck, according to spokeswoman Lynda Lambert. These are active requests that have not been redeemed yet, so the vehicles haven’t hit the road at this point.

California's ambitions and the trucking industry's concerns may collide next month, when CARB will vote on the proposed requirement to only allow new ZE trucks to be added to the ports' registry by the start of next year. It's very likely that, if the requirement is adopted, truckers will sue to block it because California hasn't addressed the lack of infrastructure to support the transition to ZE trucks, according to the Harbor Truckers Association's Schrap.

"No one seems to be able to give a straight answer," Schrap said. "The only message they have is, if you don't like it, sue us."