Plug and stay

by John G. Smith

TAMPA, Fla. – Truckers have traditionally relied on the power of diesel when running many of the creature comforts in today’s sleepers, but one US program hopes that a growing network of electrical outlets can silence the sounds of idling engines.
The US Department of Energy is investing $20.2 million into the Shorepower Truck Electrification Project (STEP), which will install electric pedestals in 50 truck stops along selected interstate corridors.

Each site will be equipped with 25 of the electrified parking spots, while funds will also offset up to 20% of the cost to install 120-volt devices in 5,000 American trucks.

Equipment eligible for the rebates includes devices such as Auxiliary Power Units or battery-powered HVAC systems, as long as they can plug into the shore power supplies.

In the meantime, some truckers are already using early installations by running simple extension cords through openings in their cab doors or sleeper windows.

Access to the Shorepower Technologies network used in this program tends to cost about $11 per night – far less than the cost of an idling engine, notes Jon Gustafson of Cascade Sierra Solutions, which is administering the Department of Energy program.

This may be an understatement. Long-haul truckers typically idle their engines between 1,400 and 3,000 hours a year in a bid to power everything from HVAC systems to refrigerators and televisions, burning between $4,900 and $10,500 of diesel in the process.

If not properly managed, idling costs can actually add up to 10.5 cents per mile, with issues like premature engine wear and rebuilds contributing another two cents per mile to that, he adds.

To compound matters, the cost of fuel has been on a steady rise. The prices at US pumps have increased about 25% per year over the past two years.

“That cost is what needs to be in mind when deciding whether electrification should be part of your equipment strategy,” he said during a presentation to the annual general meeting of the Technology and Maintenance Council.

The price of fuel is not the only factor to consider.

An increasing number of US jurisdictions are tightening the restrictions on idling trucks. Thirty-one states and 47 local jurisdictions are already limiting idling in one way or another, introducing fines along the way.

A focus on Truck Stop Electrification (TSE) also aligns with other federal initiatives in the US, such as those designed to reduce greenhouse gases and the US dependence on foreign oil.

Of course, the concept of “shore power” is nothing new.  Anyone who has ever docked in a marina, or pulled into an RV park will recognize the systems that typically deliver 120-volt, 60-cycle, 20-amp service.

Millions of trucks are already equipped with 120-volt block heaters, observed Skip Yeakel, principal engineer with Volvo Group North America.

But trucks generally have limited access to electrical connections. Truck stops are reluctant to build the infrastructure until they identify a demand, while most truckers rely on inverters for power supplies because of a lack of infrastructure.

IdleAire Technologies – which had promoted its own network of connections – reported just 131 locations before it ceased operations earlier this year.

“We know we have to build the sites in order for it to make sense,” says Jeff Kim of Shorepower Technologies, which is installing STEP’s power pedestals and offering the related payment system. “If you don’t have a place to plug in, it doesn’t work.”

Electrified parking spots involve more than a series of extension cords across a parking lot. Truck stops can sacrifice 30% of their parking spaces to make room for the necessary electrical connections, said Vince Mangano of Integrated Marketing Services, referring to one reason that the technology has been slow to arrive.

“The larger and more cumbersome the technology, the greater the impact,” he added. “Somehow the packaging has to be small.”

There also needs to be a way to track the way the individual tools are being used.

“It’s a lot of investment to pave a lot and see a lack of efficiency.”

STEP’s supporters simply hope they will see the returns on these investments. Participating truck stops can share the revenue from electricity sales, and could sell the appliances that truckers could fit into their sleepers.

Truckers will enjoy access to electricity, the Internet and cable TV fed through each pedestal. And while regulators focus on the way anti-idling tools can prevent smog, the truck stops might be able to appease common complaints from their neighbours. “The emission side of it is important from a regulatory perspective, but the average John Doe is complaining more about the noise,” Mangano said.

Future electrified sites may not be limited to traditional truck stops that are equipped with service centres, convenience stores and fuel islands.

“Non-traditional” options could include fleet terminals, rest areas, distribution centres, ports of entry and manufacturing facilities, he said.

While truck stops would want to see additional sales, fleets could equip their own yards in a bid to use less fuel.
Shippers could equip loading areas to comply with health and safety rules that are designed to limit the impact of exhaust fumes.

Those who watch over the different sites would just be influenced by different things.

Fleet managers and drivers will be able to use the promise of added business to influence a traditional truck stop.

Decisions about other locations are often governed by community politics and regulators, complete with the funding that comes from taxes and road fees.

The needs might also change in the years to come.

Future connections could be equipped to deliver 208 or 480 volts to support reefers and specialty equipment, Gustafson said.
The results of the STEP initiative itself will be graded pretty quickly.

A related report needs to be sent to the Department of Energy as early as February 2014, and those results will need to be published the following May.

By then, regulators will have a better idea of whether truckers are willing to plug and stay.

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