Electric truck stops require as much electricity as a small town

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Next month, Tesla plans to deliver the first of its electric semi-trucks, which can haul a full 40-ton load about 500 miles on a single charge. These massive batteries on wheels may accelerate the transition to electrified transportation, but those responsible for delivering the power are beginning to wonder: are we ready for it?

Probably not, according to a comprehensive new study of highway toll requirements conducted by utility National Grid. Researchers found that by 2030, electrifying a typical highway service station will require as much electricity as a professional sports stadium — and mostly just for electrified passenger cars. With more and more electric trucks hitting the streets, the projected power demand for a large truck stop will be that of a small town by 2035.

Even the authors who planned the study were surprised at how quickly the power demand on highways will change. A grid connection capable of handling more than 5 megawatts takes up to eight years and costs tens of millions of dollars. Unless the power ramp-up begins soon, the transition to electric vehicles — let alone electric trucks — will quickly be constrained by a grid unprepared for demand, warned Bart Franey, vice president of clean energy development at National Grid.

“We need to start making these investments now,” Franey said in an interview. “We can’t just wait for it to happen because the market will overtake the infrastructure.”

misunderstanding of the challenge

The total amount of new electricity that electric vehicles use is not the issue. Even if the world were to stop producing new gasoline-powered cars and trucks altogether by the early 2030s — an optimistic scenario — it would contribute no more than 15% of global electricity consumption by 2040, according to an analysis by BloombergNEF. In the age of cheap wind and solar power, that’s not much.

The real challenge is how fast high-speed chargers need to deliver power at a single place and time. Think of electricity like water flowing through a hose. You could fill an Olympic-size pool with a garden hose if you had a few months, but to fill it up in a few hours would take a fire hose. In the world of electric vehicles, a 18-wheeler is like a swimming pool – and the connections at today’s motorway stops are comparable to garden hoses.

“It’s not like plugging in a toaster. If you park 50 trucks somewhere, that’s basically a factory,” said Dave Mullaney, who leads the analysis of the electric truck at the energy research institute RMI. “Utilities know how to build factories, but the process and the sequence required scares me. Utilities need to start half a decade before trucks to avoid impeding the transition to electric trucks.”

National Grid studied fueling behavior at 71 freeway service stations of various sizes along interstate corridors in New York and Massachusetts. They applied these behaviors to EV rollout forecasts to estimate peak power demand. To model the behavior of car predictions, Stable Auto industry consultants provided data from 3,000 fast charging stations across the US. For medium and heavy trucks, the study used Geotab Fleet Tracking telematics.

The big rigs are coming

Tesla’s upcoming semi may be the first with a battery range suitable for long-distance trips across the country, but it’s not the first electric truck. Daimler Truck and Volvo already have class 8 heavy trucks on the road. These electric vehicles are designed for local and regional deliveries, charging between deliveries or overnight at the factories and distribution centers where they are located. But even on short-haul routes, some customers are already encountering infrastructure issues, said Rakesh Aneja, head of electric trucks at Daimler North America. Several customers have had to reconsider buying Daimler’s Freightliner eCascadia after realizing it would take a year longer to connect their chargers than to receive their trucks.

“Utilities wait for a customer application that requests a new service before starting work, and that process is just too long,” said Aneja. “You really have to anticipate that demand and then start doing it in a timely manner. This requires a paradigm shift from a political and regulatory point of view.”

The charging infrastructure for commercial vehicles is still in its infancy. According to a tally by BloombergNEF, more than $1.2 billion in charger investments have been announced in 2022 and 2023, enough to build more than 4,000 truck charging stations across the US and Europe. Most of this is for pilot projects, larger investments will follow.

Government incentives have advanced the timeline for mass adoption of electric trucks by 5 to 10 years, according to an RMI analysis. The landmark climate component of President Joe Biden’s Anti-Inflation Act, passed this year, will spur truck demand with a $40,000 stimulus on every heavy-duty truck sale. Biden’s infrastructure package, passed in 2021, provided $7.5 billion to fund a national system of chargers, with additional funds to fund power grid upgrades.

Nevertheless, the focus in the coming years will be primarily on the development of charging networks for cars. By 2030, it will be electric cars and pickup trucks that will be responsible for pushing half of the 71 stations surveyed by National Grid above the crucial 5-megawatt threshold. This is usually the case when major upgrades are required, including a new substation connection to high-voltage power lines.

The way many utilities are currently structured, most of the cost would be paid upfront by the gas station, with costs in the tens of millions of dollars per rest stop, although decades later the same substation could be used by multiple facilities within a gas station radius of one mile. According to US government officials with access to National Grid’s report, such huge costs would halt charger upgrades in many places.

The high-voltage power lines that are at the heart of the coming transformation are extremely robust. During major storms with power outages, these lines are rarely the problem. In fact, some towers built by horse-drawn carriages in the early 1900s are still in use more than a century later. During this period, standards for modifying and upgrading transmission lines gradually evolved, as demand predictably increased over the decades.

That won’t be the case this time. With the amount of change the grid will see over the next few decades, the old rules for building link upgrades — and who pays for them — no longer make sense, said Brian Wilkie, director of transport electrification at National Grid. Building connected electricity highways will be a competitive advantage for states that are moving fastest, and every energy company should conduct similar studies to assess future demand, he said.

According to National Grid, the location of these high-voltage taps should help decide where future charging stations and distribution facilities will be built, rather than the other way around, which should result in cost savings of about 35%.

“The biggest concern for fleets looking to electrify all of their vehicles is the infrastructure required,” Wilkie said. “They know they can’t sell trucks without charging. If they can solve that piece, they can scale the market much faster.”

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