Analysis and answers needed in zero-emissions shift

Look no further than some of Canada’s largest transportation providers for evidence of a shift to zero-emission vehicles.

CN will take delivery of 15 battery-electric trucks this year. Walmart Canada has reserved 130 of the yet-built Tesla Semi and plans to shift its entire fleet to alternative power sources by 2028. CP, meanwhile, is testing a hydrogen-powered locomotive.

During a panel discussion at a Toronto Transportation Club luncheon, CN vice-president – intermodal Dan Bresolin referred to it as a “change moment”.

green truck
(Illustration: istock)

Several factors are driving the push. A growing number of corporations are committing to carbon neutrality in the fight against climate change. Geopolitical issues such as the war in Ukraine are also maintaining upward pressure on diesel prices.

But as quickly as the commitments and underlying technologies advance, industry executives on the panel sounded a note of caution about limitations as diverse as purchase prices, yet-established infrastructure, and even insurance needs.

Insurers understand the costs of damaged wheels and fenders, noted Angelique Magi, Intact’s vice-president – specialty solutions. But pinpointing the value of a flatbed loaded with lithium-ion batteries is something else entirely. “We’re constantly thinking of that,” she said, noting that the company has partnered with the University of Waterloo’s Center of Climate Change to find answers.

Al Boughton, co-founder of Trailcon Leasing, pointed to limitations in existing power grids. Blackouts are already predicted in the western U.S. this summer, as electric grids struggle to keep up with seasonal demands such as air conditioners.

Long charging times also conspire against the need to “sweat the asset”, he added. If a shunt truck is needed 24 hours a day but spends 12 of those hours plugged in for recharging, a yard would need to double the number of trucks to meet its needs.

Many facilities are also ill-equipped to power electrified reefers alone, Boughton said.

“The money has to go to the facility improvement first,” he suggested. Investments in such equipment will always be limited if there is no place to charge it.

“We need to have a better analysis of what works and what doesn’t.”

Francis Lalonde, Walmart’s vice-president – transportation, stressed that no single solution will meet every need, either. “It’s not a ‘one size fits all,’” he said, referring to the retailer’s commitment to be carbon-neutral by 2040.

And Rob Penner, president and CEO of Bison Transport, pointed to challenges around related costs as well.

“When the truck costs a multiple of today and you can use it a fraction of today, there are no economics that can work,” he said.

Subsidies can offset those costs, but they come with a tax burden. Manufacturers and distributors can see electric vehicles as part of a strategy that involves trading in carbon credits, but truckers don’t receive such credits.

Penner also highlighted the shortcomings of looking at vehicle emissions alone.

“The U.S. gets most of its power from coal,” he said, suggesting a shift to electric vehicles in that context “just makes them feel better”.

Plans for hydrogen fuel cells face unanswered challenges, too.

“You don’t drive down the street and see too many hydrogen filling stations,” said Jordan Kajfasz, CP’s AVP – sales and marketing – intermodal.

Lalonde stressed the need for change, though.

“This is a generational project,” he said of efforts to eliminate emissions. “We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do.”

The equipment is undeniably evolving, and the need is there. But the observations show the shift to zero-emission vehicles still requires plenty of answers and analysis.

We need to be willing to recognize the shortcomings if we have any hope of solving them.

John G. Smith is the editorial director of Newcom Media's trucking and supply chain publications -- including Today's Trucking, trucknews.com, TruckTech, Transport Routier, Inside Logistics, Waste & Recycling, and Road Today. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.


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