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Ore., N.J. pushing for electric big rigs, but it will take infrastructure

By Jake Thomas
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Ore., N.J. pushing for electric big rigs, but it will take infrastructure
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris speaks next to an electric big rig at an event promoting the Biden administration's Build Back Better agenda and clean energy solutions in a Port Authority of New York and New Jersey hangar at John F. Kennedy International airport on November 1. Photo by Justin Lane/UPI | License Photo

PORTLAND, Ore., Nov. 24 (UPI) -- Oregon and New Jersey are following California's lead with regulations that seek to ramp up the number of electric vans, trucks and big rigs on the road while reducing pollution from diesel engines.

Environmental advocates say the regulations will go a long way in replacing the carbon-polluting vehicles. But both states will need to quickly build up their electric vehicle infrastructure to succeed.

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The federal Clean Air Act allows California to adopt its own motor vehicle emission standards, which can be adopted by other states.

Oregon became the first state to do so last week, when a regulatory commission approved its "Advanced Clean Truck" rule that requires manufacturers of pickup trucks, buses and tractor-trailer cabs to sell a certain percentage of electric vehicles beginning with their 2025 models. The panel adopted an accompanying rule requiring new diesel trucks to emit significantly less nitrogen oxide and fine particulate matter.

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"It is a big deal," said Mary Peveto, executive director of Portland-based Neighbors for Clean Air. "It feels like a watershed moment."

Both rules are expected to reduce the environmental impacts of trucking. Trucks are one of the fastest-rising sources of greenhouse gas emissions in Oregon, where transportation makes up about 40% of emissions. Diesel emissions cause as many as 460 premature deaths a year annually and cost $3.5 billion, according to a department estimate.

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Over the next 30 years, the rules are expected to eliminate nearly 50 million metric tons of greenhouse gases and tens of thousands of cases of respiratory diseases, according to an analysis commissioned by Natural Resources Defense Council and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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The infrastructure bill, recently signed by President Joe Biden, includes $7.5 billion in grants to help build a nationwide network of electric vehicle charging stations. Other legislation working its way through Congress would create specific tax credits and funding for more electric medium and heavy duty trucks.

One bill would specifically create a rebate program to help spur the adoption of electric medium and heavy duty trucks. Build Back Better, the expansive social spending bill, would create a new tax credit and $5 billion Environmental Protection Program intended to electrify the vehicles.

Charging ports needed

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The Oregon and California rules set ambitious targets.

By 2035, 75% of delivery vans and buses that manufacturers sell in the state will need to be electric. For pickup trucks and vans, the target is 55% and 40% for heavy-duty trucks.

But a state report in June found that Oregon needs "significant, complex electricity infrastructure upgrades." Those include building hundreds of charging ports for electric long-haul trucks and thousands for medium-duty and local commercial vehicles.

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Keith Wilson, president and CEO of Portland-based Titan Freight Systems, has been supportive of efforts to reduce the environmental impact of trucking and has largely switched his fleet to renewable diesel.

While serving on an advisory committee that crafted the regulation, Wilson pointed out that California earlier laid the groundwork for the rules by directing utilities to prepare for the electrification of transportation and offering incentives, including up to $120,000 to buy an electric heavy-duty truck.

Wilson told UPI in an email that an electric heavy-duty truck costs over $300,000 on top of having to build a charging station. With federal and state grants, his company has ordered six electric heavy-duty trucks that he expects to be delivered in 2023. Without the assistance, Oregon-based carriers won't be competitive, he said.

"I am hopeful Oregon or the federal government will act fast to fill in our state's lack of incentive and charging infrastructure assistance with the Advanced Clean Truck rule," he said. "Carriers in Oregon want to do our part to address emissions reductions and global warming."

'A new paradigm'

Other states are expected to adopt California's Advanced Clean Truck rule. In 2020, 15 governors signed a memorandum of understanding to phase out emissions from medium and heavy-duty vehicles.

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Mike Tunnell, the American Trucking Association's director of energy and environmental affairs, said in a statement that member companies are in the initial stages of acquiring electric truck technology, which he said "represents a new paradigm" for the industry.

"In order to gain a better understanding of the many aspects of this technology, a cooperative, incentive-based approach will go further toward helping unseal this potential," he said.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection is undergoing a rule-making process for the Advanced Clean Truck rule and its companion rule to reduce diesel pollution.

Over the summer, 15 transportation and business groups sent a letter to New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy stating they supported the shift to zero-emission medium and heavy-duty vehicles. But they said the rule should be put on hold while a closer look is given to its impact and the need for charging infrastructure.

Ray Cantor, executive vice president of government affairs for the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, said while the rule mandates a percentage of electric vehicles be sold in New Jersey, companies will just buy less expensive diesel trucks and vans in nearby states. Other independent truck drivers will be put out of business.

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He said the state should look at boosting vehicles powered by lower-carbon compressed natural gas or renewable natural gas while upgrading its infrastructure to support electric vans and trucks.

"The infrastructure is not there," he said. "It's expensive. You can't just plug in a fleet of trucks into the grid."

Higher charge needed

A report commissioned last year by ChargEVC-NJ, a nonprofit that promotes electric vehicles, found that electric trucks, vans and big rigs generally had less per-mile cost than conventional vehicles.

But the report found New Jersey will need over 120,000 charging depots up from the handful it has for mid- to heavy-duty vehicles by 2035 to support widespread electrification. Light-duty trucks and vans have smaller charging loads but would increase average residential electricity consumption about half, the report said.

"Everyone loves to focus on the hardest to solve problems first," said Pam Frank, CEO of ChargEVC-NJ.

She said there is some low-hanging fruit, and providing infrastructure for vans and box trucks is relatively straightforward. There are particular challenges around providing infrastructure for electric heavy-duty trucks that will require a higher charge, she said.

However, she said that many of these trucks only travel about 100 miles a day that could be fueled with a lower-class charger.

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Frank said the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities is preparing to issue a requirement that utility companies prepare for more electric vehicles. Additionally, the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill recently signed by President Joe Biden includes money to help states like New Jersey improve their electric vehicle infrastructure.

But she's worried about the money getting out soon enough. State regulators also need to act soon on the Advanced Clean Truck rule to meet a key deadline, she said..

"If we don't make that deadline, then we lose a year," Frank said. "In climate speak, we can't really lose any time."

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