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Supply Chain News: Are Electric Highways the Best Answer to Electrify Freight Truck?

 

Many Benefits, but How would Massive Costs get Paid for?

Aug. 10, 2021
 

The Tesla battery-powered Semi is supposedly coming soon, and virtually every other truck maker is developing electric models, as interest from carriers and shippers is obviously high, driven by sustainably goals.

Supply Chain Digest Says...

 

The German government is in fact funding a multi-year study comparing battery, fuel cell and electric highways across a number of attributes.

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For most, the technology choice for electric trucks comes down to two: completely battery-powered trucks, such as the Tesla Semi, and hydrogen fuel cell systems that continuously charge a much small battery, exemplified by coming models from Nikola Motors, Daimler, Volvo and others.

But should more companies – and indeed society at large, consider a third approach?
That third way goes involves development of what today are being called “electric highways,” but the base technology has been around for many years and should be familiar to most readers: powering vehicles from electrified wires overhead. That approach has been used to power city buses, street cars, and light rail for a long time.

Over the weekend, New York Times writer Jack Ewing authored an interesting article on his ride on such a truck over a test road developed by German electronics giant Siemens in its home country.

The truck, made by a Swedish company called Scania, connects to the wires overhead through a mechanism called a pantograph that is mounted on top of the cab.

In this case, the backup motor is a traditional diesel engine, but the vision is the truck would be powered when it is off the wires by a battery. But that battery can be smaller, less heavy and less expensive because it would only need to power the truck for the distance to and from electric highway.

While there are many benefits to this approach, at another level, Ewing writes, “the idea is insane. Who’s going to pay to string thousands of miles of high voltage electrical cable above the world’s major highways?”

Good question.

But first, consider this: Fuel cell advocates argues it will be many years if ever that a battery alone can power a big rig over an acceptable distance and load size.

But the fuel cell approach has critics too, who believe hydrogen is too expensive and inefficient due to the energy needed to produce it.

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So maybe a third way is needed.

The three mile long eHighway south of Frankfurt travelled by Ewing isn’t the only electric highway. There are also short stretches in two other locations in Germany. In 2017, there was a test of one mile near the Port of Los Angeles.

The eHighway is designed to test the performance using real commercial trucks carrying real freight. Ewing says that by the end of the year more than 20 trucks will be using the systems in Germany.

In terms of cost, there may be some high payback roads to begin with.

It would make sense, for example, to start with heavily traveled routes, such as the one between the Dutch port of Rotterdam and Duisburg, in Germany’s industrial heartland. Another example is the highway connecting the German ports of Hamburg and Lübeck.

Large numbers of trucks do nothing but drive back and forth between those destinations. The savings in fuel would likely pay for the infrastructure on those routes, in addition to the CO2 reduction.

Ewing writes that Siemens estimates that 4,000 kilometers of electric highways, or nearly 2,500 miles, would accommodate 60% of German truck traffic.

But governments would have to initially fund the buildout – at a current cost of about $5 million per mile.

Ouch!

The German government is in fact funding a multi-year study comparing battery, fuel cell and electric highways across a number of attributes.

“Numerous studies have come to the conclusion that a cable trucks, despite the high infrastructure costs, are the most cost-effective option,” the German Ministry for Environment says. But it also notes battery technology continue to improve.

And observers say there is also a lot of risk in electric highways. Governments could invest hundreds of billions of dollars on the infrastructure – only to have another technology win out in the end.


Any thoughts on the eHighway approach? Let us know your at the Feedback section below.


 
 
 
 
 

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