Long haul to electrify heavy trucks | FT Rethink
Electrifying heavy haulage will be vital to curbing transport emissions, but recharging truck batteries weighing more than a tonne takes vast amounts of energy and an infrastructure network that is yet to emerge on the open road
Produced by Alpha Grid, Presented by Nic Fildes
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In the race to electrify and decarbonise road transport, one of the most polluting sectors is lagging behind. It's estimated that at least 30 per cent of transport emissions come from trucks, but less than 1 per cent of those produced by conventional manufacturers are electric. And hardly any of those are long haul.
There are not huge numbers at the moment. Many of them are still in the testing phase. And it's going to be years and years before they are commonplace on the roads.
Yet, conventional long haul diesel trucks are among the most polluting and most likely to fall foul of impending emissions legislation as countries adopt net zero targets.
Fundamentally, the industry is working on the technology. They know they quite simply have to get there to be allowed to sell the vehicles in the future.
But the relatively few electric models being built are heavier and around three times more expensive than standard diesel drives. One way around the high cost and short supply of new long haul EVs is to convert existing diesel fleets.
So this is essentially a brand spanking new truck with the turning circle of a large planet.
And that's what this fledgling Australian company is aiming to do. From its workshops north of Sydney, we hitched a ride on one of the latest EV refits to hit the road.
My role is to convert these trucks to electric. It's capital that you don't have to purchase again when you already own it, but you also upgrade to the latest technology and the way of the future, really.
Janus Electric claims it can convert any existing prime mover for around a quarter of the cost of buying new.
Essentially, you get to reutilise your existing vehicle. That comes with a number of advantages. The cost of electricity in terms of an energy source versus diesel is markedly cheaper. They get to electrify. We get to reduce their CO2 emissions, and they get to save money.
It's not only the conversion process, but the battery that's at the core of the business. This is what goes into the truck, basically, here.
This is what goes into the truck. Each module weighs about one and a half tonnes.
The most expensive and critical component of any heavy EV vehicle, the battery, is interchangeable. It's designed to be swapped with fully charged replacements stocked at bespoke roadside stations. That saves the driver having to wait for an on-board recharge at variable cost.
For starters, if you come at 5pm and you're right on peak, the cost of that charge is astronomical. Because you're utilising peak power. The time, some trucks take four, six hours to charge, so the vehicle is off the road for six hours, which means you're losing money.
Janus says its batteries can be swapped in under four minutes, even less time than it takes to fill conventional tanks with diesel fuel. But the business is still developing. The company expects to deliver only around 30 conversions by the end of the year. In the short term, Janus' battery change stations will be restricted to specific routes.
This is not an investment where we will, for example, try and instal enough charge and change stations to cover Australia. That doesn't make financial sense. So what we're doing this year is we're installing small, commercially viable charge and change stations between Brisbane and Sydney.
On the other side of the world, unlike Janus, leading manufacturers, like Swedish giant Scania, are building new electric trucks rather than refitting existing diesels. Scania's long haul EVs are due to start rolling off the production line at the end of 2023 with a new battery the company claims will have a lifespan of 1.5mn kilometres. That's equivalent to an average truck itself.
Of course, they'll still need a recharge every several hundred kilometres or so, depending on the load.
You just open the hatch, plug it in. To charge this one, it will take a couple of hours. It's quiet. It's no vibrations. People go around and think that heavy transport, that will never be possible to electrify. And we who work with it every day, we say that we're already here.
But it's on open roads where high capacity top-up points are required to support any significant industry-wide transition to battery-driven trucks.
We say that we need around 20,000 public charging stations with a capacity of mega charging, meaning 800 kilowatts or 1 megawatt charging. Who should do that? Who would like to start that? We need help from countries, authorities, and other investors also to make this happen.
Now, there's a bit of a scenario in the industry where they're just hoping that they produce the vehicles, and the charging issue will just get dealt with. But they know certainly they have to move away from diesel in the next two decades because of regulations.
Building tens of thousands of charging stations isn't the only challenge. Electricity grids will also have to be upgraded to supply the enormous amounts of energy required to recharge heavy long haul batteries at viable speed.
National Grid, I think, once estimated that for each long distance truck to refuel quickly, to recharge quickly with a battery, that would have the same power draw as a small town. It's incredibly expensive to build stations that can cater to that or to upgrade the grid to allow it to cater to that.
Scania and other EV truck manufacturers hope to kickstart the process with a 500mn euro joint venture to build 1,700 high output charging points across Europe. But the first units aren't expected to be operational until the end of 2023.
I think one of the biggest topic we have now in electrification journey, which is true for trucks and for passenger cars as well, there is range anxiety. There is lack of infrastructure, or the infrastructure is coming too slow.
Mobile charging stations are another temporary solution. Northvolt says it's sold around 100 units. But these are just small steps on the long road to decarbonise heavy haulage, the 1 per cent traffic thought to be responsible for at least 15 per cent of all transport emissions.