Electrification of Freight Mobility: Important Considerations for Utilities

Electrification of Freight Mobility: Important Considerations for Utilities


Richard Fioravanti

Director, Transportation Electrification

Over the past few years, there have been several transportation electrification studies focusing on the mobility of people via individual vehicles, taxi/ridesharing, or mass transit. These studies tend to focus on light-duty vehicle activity, where initiatives are proposed to increase charger deployment and availability through a greater number of public charging stations and government mandates. Funding bodies are providing grants to reduce the cost of Level II charger installations. However, electrification will not be limited to only the mobility of people. It will also extend into business processes in ways that have not yet been fully anticipated or appreciated by utilities.

The mobility of freight is an area where utility planners and forecasters should focus more attention on in order to understand how electrification will impact the distribution of goods in the United States. In such cases, companies will be seeking reduced operating costs, such as fuel and maintenance, lower emissions, and fewer impacts that diesel trucks may have on areas of high traffic. The grid impacts of the charging stations needed to support this movement can be significant due to its size and speed to market, which is why it should be a focus of utility planners.

The study of modernization of freight movement is still in its infancy compared to light-duty vehicles.  This disparity may be caused by stakeholders focusing on emissions benefits of CO2 reductions rather than the electricity grid impacts of charging stations that are important to utilities or electricity grid operators.  Light-duty vehicles outnumber freight trucking and delivery fleet vehicle totals. Thus, the corresponding emissions reduction attributed to the light-duty market electrifying can be significantly greater while compared to freight vehicles. However, from an EV charging impact perspective, this disparity does not exist. Although there are significantly more light-duty vehicles, the charging stations of trucking and delivery fleet vehicles are considerably larger.  For example, while light-duty, level II charging will only be in the range of 7 to 10 kW, commercial trucking/freight charging stations will be in the 350 to 500 kW size range. Even though there are fewer delivery fleet vehicles on the road they potentially can create a greater impact on electricity grids.

As stated previously grid impacts of charging stations for freight movements can be large, but keep in mind that trucking/delivery vehicles are not absent from other potential problems. Trucking routes can contribute to emission, environmental, and noise issues as well. Finally, for truck fleets and freight movement, the transition may occur at a faster pace than light-duty vehicles due to, as with all commercial businesses, the motivation to electrify being profit-driven. Electric delivery vehicles, which generally have consistent and defined routes, are close to parity with their petroleum counterparts on a levelized cost-of-service basis. Once parity is achieved, the transition to electric will be dramatic and fast.

Figure 1 illustrates a future freight mobility eco-system that is expected to be electrified. The images highlight the movement of freight between ports and distribution centers.

electrification freight mobility

Figure 1. Cargo Flow from Ports to Modern Distribution Centers

This cargo transportation system has unique characteristics that make it amendable to electrification.  First, ports are usually in urban areas, where it is desired to reduce fossil fuel emissions to improve air quality. Second, there are often noise constraints associated with 24-hour operation. Finally, the “point-to-point” nature of cargo transport, when combined with relatively short travel distances, makes the process easier to electrify. It should also be noted that these characteristics are in addition to the previously stated emission benefits that can be captured by electrifying the delivery process.

For a utility that is looking to support these changes, some issues must be addressed. Utilities tend to examine impacts based on activities at a single site or facility, but as electrification integrates with business processes and supply chains across multiple sites, customer key account impact may need to be considered on a wider basis. For utilities whose commercial and industrial customers are pursuing this path, there are multiple areas for which to focus when examining electrification of a delivery chain:

  1. Airport and Port Electrification Potential: Many utilities have worked with shipping ports in their territory, but airport cargo is less understood. Most focus on ground support equipment at airport centers on aircraft and baggage support, while there has been little focus on airport cargo.
  2. Trucking Movement from Entry Port to Distribution Facilities: Utilities tend to focus on loads at individual facilities, but usually do not monitor how goods flow between facilities.
  3. External Charging Needs of Delivery Vehicles at Facilities: Charging would be for the delivery vehicles (100-150 kWh batteries) incoming short-haul trucks (450-600kWh batteries).  Data on the number of vehicles, driving schedule, delivery truck battery size, required charging stations, and charging load profiles will be collected in the initial phase.
  4. Internal Charging Needs—Forklift Operation within Facilities: Forklifts are expected to be powered by lithium-ion batteries, and though the batteries are not as large as the truck batteries, understanding the number of vehicles and charging profiles of forklifts is necessary.

This ecosystem is not a far-fetched concept. Even today, modern distribution facilities, like the one shown in Figure 2, are being constructed by leading distribution companies. Leaders such as Amazon, DHL, Ikea, and several food distributors such as Dole and Del Monte are modernizing distribution centers and building “greenfield” sites to accommodate electric freight/cargo transportation. Each facility is designed to account for level floor space that enhances robotic activities across the facility and constructing to a building layout to support the anticipated use of automation.

electrification vehicle

Figure 2. IKEA Distribution System Being Constructed in Staten Island, NY, USA

Distribution centers of the future will be more than “just a load” for utilities. Many of these buildings are optimal locations for solar and storage, which can be installed to mitigate increases in electrification loads, as well as serve as “natural” non-wire alternative sites.

For utilities that need to accommodate the potential load growth generated from new facilities and electrification, loads will need to be monitored for the potential constraints created by the additional facility, and likely from the electrification of the surrounding facilities as well.

In summary, although utilities have been examining electrification from the perspective of charging requirements and how to accelerate charger deployment, electrification will have a much wider impact than that for which utilities are currently considering. Their analysis and planning must account for more than light-duty charging loads and fleets to include how goods move from one location to another and the infrastructure that will be required to support that movement.

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