Electric heavy-duty vehicles are one click closer to hitting the hammer lane on B.C. roads and passing their fossil fuel-burning counterparts.
But there are a few potholes to navigate along the route.
Last week, the B.C. Transportation Ministry announced it would allow electric and hydrogen-powered commercial vehicles to carry up to 1.5 tonnes more weight than gas- and diesel-burning trucks to help offset extra costs and encourage more “green” fleets.
In a statement released May 14, B.C. Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Rob Fleming said British Columbia is the “only province or territory to offer a weight allowance incentive that empowers trucking companies to make investments in clean technology upgrades, knowing with confidence that it will be a sound investment for them.”
Low-carbon trucks weigh more than their diesel-burning counterparts, so the expanded load allowance will help operators recoup the cost of hauling a heavy battery around instead of extra goods, the ministry said.
In addition to individual operators and businesses, the province as a whole would benefit from the electrification of the trucking industry. Increasing the number of vehicles powered by electricity, hydrogen and renewables would reduce harmful greenhouse gases, or GHGs.
According to CleanBC, in 2018, B.C.’s gross emissions were 67.9 megatonnes of GHGs. A third of that came from the transportation sector, and 9.5 megatonnes from heavy-duty vehicles — an amount equal to emissions from heating over three million homes.
The Transportation Ministry says that currently, medium- and heavy-duty commercial vehicles are responsible for about half of the GHG emissions from B.C.’s road transportation sector. These trucks transport nearly 92 per cent of all consumer goods (by weight) in the province.
The problem is that switching to low-emission vehicles isn’t financially feasible for most — at least not yet, according to Dave Earle, president of the non-profit BC Trucking Association.
In an interview with The Tyee, Earle notes that out of the 60,000 heavy-duty trucks currently in operation in B.C., only a handful are electric. Nine hundred run on natural gas and the rest are powered by diesel fuel.
The electric trucks have a range of just 100 kilometres and are mostly used in shipping yards, he adds.
It’s not that the industry doesn’t want to run cleaner vehicles, Earle says, it does. After all, it would be good for business. Diesel is by far a trucking company's largest expense and no one wants to reduce that expense more than the people paying for it. Earle says electric trucks also have lower maintenance, operating and fuel costs.
So what’s keeping truckers from jumping in the driver’s seat and going full speed ahead as early adopters of electric vehicles?
There are a number of factors, Earle says. First, there's the weight.
A battery can tip the scales at 5,000 kilograms, so if trucks can only carry up to a certain weight, B.C.'s new 1,500-kilogram load allowance will not offset the weight of the battery.
That means if a company needs to ship 80 tonnes and each truck is allowed to carry 20 tonnes, the business could use four diesel trucks — or require five low-carbon trucks because of the extra weight of the batteries, Earle explains.
“So it really, really hits the efficiency of these alternate-fuel vehicles because you can't haul as much stuff because of the [battery] weight.”
Second, there's the cost.
A shiny new electric heavy vehicle will set you back anywhere between $550,000 and $650,000, whereas a new diesel-powered heavy vehicle costs about $180,000, Earle says.
There is some government funding to assist with purchasing price. Under the provincial recovery program StrongerBC, companies buying electric medium- and heavy-duty vehicles could get up to $100,000 in rebates per vehicle.
After the up-front purchase, Earle says a business should be able to save 60 per cent in operating costs and 30 per cent in maintenance expenditures, but that’s just an estimate because a lot of low-carbon vehicles are still in the prototype stages.
And that leads into the third problem: these types of rigs are cutting edge and are therefore still having a lot of the kinks ironed out, Earle says. Nonetheless, the transportation sector is starting to shift gears.
While these barriers might make smaller companies hesitant to invest in low-carbon-emission trucks, big businesses with deep pockets are eagerly lining up to try out new technologies, Earle says.
And as time goes by, the technology is bound to become more efficient and therefore, more economical, he adds.
“It's going to get better because the industry is just so engaged and dying for it,” he says.
In fact, Earle encourages motorists to keep their eyes on the roads this summer to see the new technology in action as he expects some of the first electric trucks will be hitting B.C.'s highways.
Eventually, low-carbon trucks could be used all around the Fraser Valley, from Hope to Squamish, and across Vancouver Island, he says.
But be prepared to settle in for a long road trip, as the journey to electric avenue could take the better part of a decade, Earle says, citing the example of the evolution of the private gasoline vehicle. It’s taken 14 years to transition approximately one per cent of the cars on the road in B.C. to electric models.