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Ports Weigh Alternatives To Diesel Trucks

As part of their shared goal to transition to zero-emission trucks, the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles have released a short-term feasibility assessment for replacing diesel-powered drayage trucks with available low- and zero-emission alternatives by 2021. Of the five alternative fuels evaluated, natural gas and battery electric platforms are the closest to reaching commercial viability to “provide similar or better overall performance” than current Class 8 (heavy duty) diesel trucks. The platforms were further analyzed for their operational and economic feasibility and the availability of refueling infrastructure.

Transitioning to near-zero and zero-emission vehicles is one of the key goals outlined by the San Pedro Bay Ports Clean Air Action Plan (CAAP), a joint strategy by the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to reduce emissions in the port complex. Originally created in 2006, the CAAP was updated in 2010 and 2017 to create new emissions targets. Under the latest iteration of the plan, the ports are attempting to transition to zero-emission terminal equipment by 2030 and zero-emission trucks by 2035.

The ports have committed to releasing regular feasibility assessments on the technology in order to reach the CAAP’s goals. “The plan is to release them in three-year increments, because they are quite intensive,” Matt Arms, the port’s acting director of environmental planning, said. “If there is a need, we’ll do them sooner.”

The 2018 Feasibility Assessment for Drayage Trucks, released in early April 2019, includes technology readiness level (TRL) ratings that describe the various stages of platform development. Natural gas is ranked the highest in this nine-tier system, currently at TRL 8. This means natural gas trucking technology displays technical viability in demonstrations, with the likelihood of advancing to the ranking of TRL 9, or commercial operation, by 2021.

Battery electric drayage trucks are currently in the demonstration and conditioning phase of development, ranked TRL 6-7. This technology is expected to reach TRL 8 by or before 2021. The other three platforms assessed – hydrogen fuel cells, plug-in hybrids and the advanced diesel internal combustion engine – currently rank between TRL 5 and 6, meaning they are still under development or in the demonstration phase. The advanced diesel engine, the assessment notes, “has yet to demonstrate [near zero-emission] status.”

While battery electric trucks “outperform diesel trucks in terms of power, torque, and gradeability,” they are limited by the range they are able to travel, the weight they can carry and the time they require to recharge, according to the assessment. Natural gas trucks are determined to be “the closest direct replacement for diesel trucks in terms of operational feasibility.” Natural gas-powered trucks are on par with diesel trucks in “basic performance metrics,” and are expected to achieve greater parity in support infrastructure as they become more commonly available.

According to the report, manufacturers “have significantly accelerated their efforts to develop and commercialize ZE [zero-emission] and NZE [near zero-emission] Class 8 trucks suitable for drayage,” with both “commercial and pre-commercial demonstrations . . . now underway.”

The feasibility assessments released by the ports are intended to be unbiased, technical documents that do not offer policy suggestions, Arms said. They are meant to inform decisionmakers and serve as guideposts for the current state of green technology. “This document, incorporated with other things that we’re doing under the CAAP – they all need to be brought together in order to continually make policy decisions about our goals [and] where we should focus our efforts,” he concluded.

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