California Pushes Electric Trucks as the Future of Freight

Neri Diaz thought he was ready for a crucial juncture in California’s ambitious plans, closely watched in other states and around the world, to phase out diesel-powered trucks.

His company, Harbor Pride Logistics, acquired 14 electric trucks this year to work alongside 32 diesel vehicles, in anticipation of a rule that says diesel rigs can no longer be added to the list of vehicles approved to move goods in and out of California’s ports. But in August the manufacturer of Mr. Diaz’s electric vehicles, Nikola, took back the trucks as part of a recall, saying it would return them in the first quarter of the new year.

“It’s a brand-new technology, first generation, so I knew things were going to happen, but I wasn’t expecting all my 14 trucks to be taken back,” he said. “It is a big impact on my operations.”

The rule was to take effect at the start of the new year, but California’s Air Resources Board said on Thursday that it would not begin enforcement until it had received approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Trucking, an outsize source of carbon emissions, is where California’s green revolution is meeting some of its biggest challenges. Electric trucks, with their huge batteries, can cost over $400,000, and they can’t do long hauls without stopping for long charging periods, which can undermine the economics of a trucking fleet.

But California sees the port trucks as an opportunity to take a big step forward.

The electric trucks on the market today can travel from the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach — the nation’s busiest hub for container cargo — to many of the warehouses inland without stopping to charge. And cleaning up the port trucks could have a big impact. With some 30,000 trucks registered with the ports, introducing green vehicles could lead to a substantial decrease in carbon emissions and the particulates that can cause illnesses in the communities through which the trucks travel.

Nancy Gonzalez and her 25-year-old son, Juan, who has Down syndrome and rheumatoid arthritis, live in the Wilmington neighborhood, just north of the ports. Huge rigs going to and from nearby truck yards roar constantly a few feet from the house.

The truck traffic got much heavier about four years ago, Ms. Gonzalez said, and now she cleans twice a day to get rid of the dirt it produces. Ms. Gonzalez says that she has problems with her sinuses and that her son’s eyes started tearing about two years ago.

“Nobody opens their windows,” she said in Spanish through an interpreter. “Nobody.”

California hopes that its stringent rules combined with financial support — truck purchase grants from state agencies can total as much as $288,000 per vehicle, operators say — will help spur truckers, automakers, warehouse landlords, utilities and charging companies to make the investments needed to create a carbon-free port truck sector by 2035, when all diesel trucks will be banned from the ports. And success at the ports could help the state meet its goal of decarbonizing all types of trucking over the next two decades, and be a model for similar efforts in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Oregon and Washington.

“In the long run, I am quite confident we can decarbonize the heavy-duty truck sector,” said James Sallee, a professor in the department of agriculture and resource economics at the University of California, Berkeley, referring to California’s plan. “But I don’t know that the industry is ready to overcome the various barriers to rapid deployment.”

The port fleets have barely started the transformation.

In November, 180 electric trucks, a mere 1 percent of the total, were registered to operate at the Port of Los Angeles. There was a single truck powered by hydrogen fuel cells, the other technology used to power big rigs.

Some truck operators say they have stockpiled diesel trucks and registered them with the ports ahead of the new rule, though this does not show up in port statistics. In November, there were 20,083 diesel trucks with access to the Los Angeles port, down from 21,310 a year earlier.

Large companies, with deep pockets and big facilities, are best positioned to make the green transition. Mike Gallagher, a California-based executive at Maersk, the Danish shipping giant, said the company had a fully electric fleet, comprising some 85 vehicles made by Volvo and BYD, the Chinese automaker, for transporting goods up to 50 miles out of the ports of Southern California. And it has worked with landlords to install scores of chargers at its depots.

“We’re well ahead of the curve,” he said.

But smaller trucking fleets do most of the port runs — accounting for some 70 percent at the Los Angeles port — and they are going to find the transition hard. The California Trucking Association has filed a federal lawsuit against the state’s trucking rules, including the one focused on port trucks, contending that they represent “a vast overreach that threatens the security and predictability of the nation’s goods movement industry.”

Matt Schrap, the chief executive of the Harbor Trucking Association, another trade group, said the port truck rules lacked exemptions that would help smaller businesses survive the transformation. Getting access to chargers is particularly difficult for smaller fleets, he said: They are expensive, and the truck yard landlords may be reluctant to install them, forcing the operators to rely on a public charging system that is only just getting built.

“The landlord is, like, ‘There’s not a snowball’s chance in Bakersfield that you’re going to tear up my parking lot to put in some heavy-duty charging,’” Mr. Schrap said.

Concern exists beyond the trade groups. Mr. Gallagher, the Maersk executive, said that if the clean truck rules caused serious problems for smaller operators, it could be “a significant disruption to the supply chain.”

Forum Mobility is one of several companies that believe they can help the smaller fleets, by building public truck charging stations and leasing electric trucks. The company has secured permits to build a depot at the Long Beach port, expected to open next year, that can charge 44 trucks. The depot will run on nine megawatts of electricity, enough to power most sports stadiums, but Forum Mobility executives say that charging all the port trucks would require roughly the amount of power produced by Diablo Canyon, a California nuclear power station, and thousands of chargers.

“We need a real Manhattan Project on interconnection,” said Adam Browning, executive vice president for policy at Forum Mobility.

Chanel Parson, director of building and transportation electrification at Southern California Edison, a large power utility, said building out the truck-charging infrastructure would be helped if state agencies streamlined the issuing of permits and accelerated spending approvals, and if trucking companies communicated their charging needs.

But she added that her company was undaunted by the task. “There’s not this concern that this is really difficult,” she said. “It’s what we do.”

Mr. Diaz, the operator whose Nikola trucks were recalled, said that charging the trucks cost roughly 40 percent less than diesel, and that he was impressed with their performance. Even with the help of state grants, he estimates that the electric trucks cost him as much as 50 percent more than diesel models. During the recall, Nikola has been covering the payments on the loans Mr. Diaz took out to buy the trucks, but he said he was concerned about the truck maker’s financial situation.

Steve Girsky, Nikola’s chief executive, said a new infusion of capital in December showed that investors believed in the company. “This will get us a long way,” he said in an interview. “Everything this company’s talked about is coming together in the fourth quarter.”

Some trucking executives say not only that they are used to responding to California’s ratcheting up of regulations over the years, but also that they believe in the environmental goals of the port truck transition.

Rudy Diaz, president of Hight Logistics, said the new regulations had pushed up some of his costs as his company brought drivers onto its payroll and reduced its reliance on contract drivers using their own diesel trucks.

“It’s extra headaches, extra costs,” he said. “But consumers are asking for products that are more sustainable, and they’re willing to pay the price.”

Ana Facio-Krajcer contributed reporting.

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