EcoLog,  12/11/2020

Trucking: gridlock on the road to net zero?

by Mark Sabourin

Two new reports, one from Propulsion Québec, the other from Pembina Institute, come to fundamentally the same conclusion: whether in Quebec or nationally, converting the fleet of commercial trucks from fossil fuels to electricity will be a massive and costly endeavour, but a necessary one if Canada is to meet its climate commitments.

Electricity and hydrogen are often held out as the two most likely alternatives to fossil fuels for the commercial trucking fleets and, of the two, electricity is the most readily available right now in urban settings, says Carolyn Kim, transportation director at the Pembina Institute and a co-author of its report, in a phone interview with EcoLog News.

In “Fleet Electrification in Quebec: Making the switch to medium and heavy electric vehicles in commercial and institutional fleets”, Propulsion Québec lays out the many barriers that stand before commercial vehicle electrification: vehicle acquisition, charging facilities, operational and internal issues, and expertise and skills, both in Quebec and across North America. These barriers will have to be lifted if fleet electrification is to proceed, it says.

The vehicles are expensive — at least 150% of the cost of conventional diesel trucks according to Propulsion Québec, even more according to Pembina Institute. And that’s if a fleet operator can find one. They are in very short supply. Kim says that fewer than 600 were sold across all of North America in 2019, and most of those were zero-emission buses in the United States.

You can’t separate electric vehicles from charging infrastructure, says Propulsion Québec, and that means not only a network of public charging stations, but also financing the cost and finding the space for fleet-wide charging at an operator’s depot. Internally, fleet operators will encounter institutional resistance within various corporate silos, lack of knowledge and technical support, and uncertainty about the total cost of operations.

In “Building a zero-emission goods-movement system: Opportunities to strengthen Canada’s ZEV freight sector”, Pembina Institute looks at the challenge of building a fleet of 25,000 medium- and heavy-duty electric trucks in heavily urbanized areas. This is low-hanging fruit in the truck electrification business, because urban trucks are mostly used over shorter distances, easing the range anxiety that would unnerve a long-haul trucker. But even in cities, that low-hanging fruit is far from reach. Assuming the supply was available, the cost in vehicle procurement alone would come in at around $5 billion.

And it’s not simply a question of getting electric trucks on the road. The fossil-fuelled vehicles they replace must be removed from service, and given that a commercial truck can have a service life of 20 years, according to Kim, there will be a need for incentives to keep them off the road.

If this all sounds enormously expensive, it’s because it is. Neither report puts a price tag on fleet conversion. Instead they recommend a suite of policy measures and incentives needed to get the transition underway and to keep it going. These could include subsidies for vehicle purchases and charging stations infrastructure, tax incentives, demonstration projects, supply mandates and non-financial incentives, such as access to HOV lanes, dedicated parking spaces, ZEV-only zones in certain urban areas, regulatory exemptions.

But the enormity of the challenge has to be balanced against the enormity of the problem, says Kim. It’s not too soon to be talking about this. “This is the level of transition that’s required to help meet our climate targets,” she says.

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