CO experts say adoption of all-electric interstate big rigs faces long haul

Matt Whittaker

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A Nikola Tre electric truck on display at the Colorado State Capitol in March.Colorado Department of Transportation

By Matt Whittaker / NewsBreak Denver

(Across Colorado) Back in March, Aurora-based Wagner Equipment Corp. became the first in Colorado to offer an electric semi truck. As of Tuesday, the heavy equipment dealer hadn’t sold any of the Nikola Corp. vehicles but had three “solid” proposals in front of potential customers.

“There’s plenty of interest in it,” said sales representative Dan Cassaday. But for a fleet owner or an owner-operator to switch from a diesel-powered rig to an electric one isn’t the same thing as buying a Tesla sedan. They must think about the options they want, secure financing, and calculate their return on investment.

The switch to zero-emission medium- and heavy-duty vehicles has been a priority for the administration of Gov. Jared Polis, which this month finalized its Clean Truck Strategy as part of *a package of initiatives “to improve air quality, reduce emissions and save people and small businesses money.”

Even though those types of vehicles account for less than 10 percent of vehicles in Colorado, they contribute more than 20 percent of on-road greenhouse gas emissions, making them the second-largest source of those emissions in the state’s transportation sector, the administration said.

But widespread adoption of electric big rigs has a long road ahead of it.

Cost is a major factor. A traditional semi tractor can cost $150,000, while an electric one can cost more than twice that, Cassaday says. Battery electric trucks with a range less than 500 miles between charges won’t be cost-competitive with traditional internal combustion engines until 2035, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Although the initial purchase is “quite expensive,” the total cost of ownership is lower compared with diesel rigs, said Kay Kelly, chief of innovative mobility with the Colorado Department of Transportation. Switching to electric vehicles allows fleets to have greater price stability given the volatile price of diesel, which has recently risen to record highs in Colorado and around the nation.

“The high and volatile fuel costs present a risk to fleets and the ability to switch to electric vehicles and have that more predictable and stable pricing is definitely a factor fleets are starting to think about,” Kelly said.

But the unknown length of time of the current fuel price spike means it’s probably not a reason of its own for the adoption of more electric long-haul rigs, she said.

Another roadblock to wider adoption of long-haul trucks is a lack of product availability. Tesla is taking reservations for its electric semi trucks, one model of which has a range of 500 miles, but production isn’t expected until 2023.

“Electric semis are a pretty rare bird these days,” said Thomas Bradley, professor of systems engineering at Colorado State University.

There aren’t a lot of product offerings for the biggest types of semi tractors, and what is available is very new, Kelly said.

In Colorado, the most advanced market for heavy duty electric vehicles is that for transit buses and school buses, she said. Medium duty delivery trucks are also early leaders in the state. As NewsBreak has previously reported, Colorado government agencies are increasingly adding electric vehicles amid a state and federal push to reduce harmful emissions from government fleets.

Another issue facing the electrification of the trucking industry is charging infrastructure.

The Nikola model Wagner sells has a range of 350 miles before it needs to be recharged, making it more suitable for regional routes that allow it to return to a home base for a charge. But there isn’t a widespread national system of chargers that have the power to top up trucks with interstate ranges quickly enough to keep drivers on schedule.

Building a public charging network for medium- and heavy-duty trucks is part of Colorado’s clean truck strategy, Kelly said.

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Matt Whittaker writes about natural resources industries, including oil and gas, mining, renewable energy, agriculture and cannabis. He's been based in the Denver metro area since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter @mattswhittaker.

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