Power to the people

by James Menzies

BAKER CITY, Ore. – The idea of heating and cooling a truck cab and powering on-board devices such as fridges and TVs using everyday electrical power seems almost too obvious.

Compared to diesel fuel, powering devices using electricity is inexpensive, clean, quiet and it’s widely available. Just not at truck stops. That’s about to change south of the border, particularly in the Pacific Northwest where the Shorepower Truckstop Electrification Project (STEP) has been launched. The project, administered by Cascade Sierra Solutions and Shorepower Technologies, will see power pedestals installed at 50 US truck stops, many of them located along the I-5 and I-84 corridors.

The first installation at a truck stop in Baker City, Ore. is already complete with the remaining 49 locations to receive installations over the next 18 months. These will complement the existing 400 parking spaces Shorepower Technologies has already equipped with shorepower pedestals at 10 truck stops.

Shorepower availability presents a whole new set of anti-idling options to truck drivers. In some cases, truckers are employing solutions as simple as an extension cord connected to a space heater to provide warmth overnight.

“The simplest form of electrification is an extension cord with a portable heater; that’s a $50 option,” Alan Bates, vice-president of marketing with Shorepower Technologies told Truck News in an interview. Other options range from aftermarket wiring kits that allow a plug-in outlet to be installed on the side of the truck (roughly $200) to full-scale auxiliary power units (APUs) that offer shorepower capabilities (up to $12,000). New trucks can even be ordered direct from the factory with shorepower connections already installed. (Cascade Sierra Solutions has posted a list of shorepower compatible devices at http://csswebform.org/WebForm/Supplier_List.aspx)

Bates said the trucking industry is eager to embrace shorepower as a viable alternative to idling. Shorepower Technologies’ pedestals provide electricity at the cost of $1 an hour, in addition to a $1 start-up fee. Drivers can access the service by parking in a space adjacent to a pedestal and activating it using a credit card. However, Bates admitted availability remains the biggest inhibitor to the more widespread use of shorepower. Outside the Pacific Northwest – and certainly here in Canada – shorepower availability remains spotty.

“We have to have a critical mass of sites in order for it to be compelling,” Bates acknowledged. “If a driver goes out and wants to put an electric AC system on their truck, and say it’s $1,500, if they’re only able to use it in a couple places in the country that return on investment is going to be much longer. At the end of this (STEP) program, we will have close to 2,000 parking spaces along seven or eight major corridors. If they can now plug in every 300-500 miles, the ROI ramps up significantly and they can justify it more easily.”

Bates likened the rollout of truck stop electrification to the construction of a cell phone network.

“If you only have a couple towers, it’s not a good network. You need a good infrastructure footprint out there to make it effective,” he noted.

And that is why many early adopters are shying away from equipping their trucks with expensive aftermarket options and are instead opting for more economical solutions like space heaters, Bates suggested. Still, there’s a lot to like about shorepower availability at truck stops and other places truckers park. With diesel prices surging, electricity is a more cost-effective power source for heating, cooling and powering in-cab devices. It is also quieter than running a diesel-fired heater or APU. Bates said it’s also less expensive than off-board systems (such as IdleAir) that are temporarily installed in the truck cab’s window.

“It really boils down to simplicity,” Bates said of electrification’s advantages. “The cost to install a shorepower system can be one-tenth to one-twentieth the cost of what an off-board system costs (to install). So you have lower infrastructure costs, which translate into lower costs for the user. The other part of that is maintenance. The off-board systems require a significant amount of maintenance. Our systems require very little maintenance and are built to last 20 years in a very harsh environment, so our maintenance costs are lower.”

Speaking of harsh environments, will the move towards truck stop electrification that’s gaining so much steam in the US soon reach Canada? On that front, Bates was less optimistic. He’s been speaking with Canadian officials and so far has found that “interest is high, but funding is low.”

To get truck stop electrification off the ground, Bates said truck stops require some start-up funding from government, as was provided via the STEP program south of the border.

“For a private entity to commit to spending $100,000 to $200,000 to put the system in…most truck stops don’t have the luxury of that capital outlay,” he said, noting a payback can be realized in as little as three to four years, but the start-up costs are somewhat prohibitive for the private sector. He also suggested the fact Canada has fewer truck stops to begin with is also an inhibitor; Canadian truckers don’t always have the option of parking at a truck stop overnight.

Still, Canadian fleets and owner/operators stand to benefit from shorepower availability when running into the US, particularly those fleets from B.C. that run south along the West Coast. Canada aside, Bates remains bullish about the prospects for the widespread availability of shorepower at truck stops.

“We think that plug-in pedestals will become as ubiquitous as Internet service at truck stops and that drivers will seek them out,” Bates said. “When fuel goes to $5-7 per gallon, it is not only going to be compelling but it will be mandatory that drivers change their operational behaviours. They won’t have the luxury of just idling for 10-12 hours at a time and they’ll have to find an alternative. We see it being at three quarters of all truck stops eventually. I would say it will take the better part of a decade to get mass coverage, but our goal is to add 250-500 locations over the next five years.”

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