President Biden’s sweeping infrastructure package includes $174 billion for electric vehicles, an investment that will speed the transition away from polluting gas and diesel vehicles and toward cleaner forms of road transportation. The upfront cost of infrastructure is a key barrier to rapid deployment of zero-emission vehicles and the health and climate benefits that an electrified vehicle future will provide.
The proposal includes a wide array of vehicle electrification issues — from research and development to manufacturing to increased capability to purchase clean vehicles. But when it comes to maximizing the environmental, health and equity potential of electric transportation, it leaves some critical considerations on the table. Most notably, the potential impact of medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, or trucks and buses.
First and foremost, it is crucial that the country’s investment in zero-emission vehicles includes more than passenger cars and is ambitious in cleaning up all medium- and heavy-duty trucks and buses. President Biden’s call to modernize transit and expand clean school buses is well placed, but the call should extend beyond buses — and as soon as possible. This will require investment in all aspects of the supply chain as well as increased funding and programs to deploy increasing numbers of zero-emission vehicles and charging stations throughout the nation —as well as ensuring that communities of color have the tools needed to benefit from the increased deployment of these vehicles.
Transportation accounts for nearly 30% of all climate pollution in the United States and has steadily increased over the last 30 years due to an increase in vehicle miles traveled. And medium- and heavy-duty vehicles are responsible for an outsized portion of all transportation emissions. Trucks and buses account for a substantial share of on-road emissions totaling 28% of the transportation sector’s climate emissions, 45% of nitrous oxide emissions and 57% of fine particulate matter. Integrating the electrification of America’s truck and bus fleets would make the president’s proposal even more powerful.
Deployment of zero-emission vehicles can further Biden’s call for equity
Because warehouse districts, depots, heavy-trafficked highways and ports are most common in or near disadvantaged communities, including communities of color, low-income communities and other communities who have been historically marginalized, transitioning to zero-emission trucks and buses can help cities address long-standing equity issues. Programs that require minimum infrastructure deployments in disproportionately burdened areas, like those offered by investor-owned utilities in California, are one tool to ensure that benefits are equitably distributed.
Modernizing transit and ensuring public transportation access in the aforementioned communities is also of critical importance, but that must require investment in zero-emission transit and school buses in these communities — as well as the trucks that drive in pollution-burdened areas. Addressing inequities in who gets access to federal funding first must be actively managed to avoid hurting small businesses that already have fewer financing options. This is particularly true for small businesses owned by people of color, immigrants and women — who have been hardest hit financially from the pandemic.
Electrifying trucks and buses requires different considerations than passenger vehicles
As stated in the infrastructure announcement, “to meet the President’s goals of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, the United States will need more electric vehicles [and] charging ports.” However, addressing the cost of charging infrastructure — one of the biggest barriers to commercial fleet electrification — will require a fundamentally different approach compared to passenger vehicles.
Trucks need access to much more rapid charging than passenger vehicles, given they carry heavier loads and contain larger batteries. Emphasizing rapid chargers that can accommodate commercial fleet needs while working with states and utilities to ensure the grid impacts of these higher power levels are managed will be critical. Private depot charging should be emphasized, as well. Most medium- and heavy-duty vehicles operate on established, relatively short routes. That means they’ll come back to a depot to charge, rather than rely on public charging. With the exception of long-haul trucks that will have to stop at charging stations along highway corridors, near-term investment in private charging infrastructure will be important to drive growth in commercial zero-emission vehicles.
Yesterday, EDF released two reports on the unique infrastructure challenges and solutions for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles. Coordinated investments that reduce the cost of charging infrastructure, like the one President Biden announced yesterday, is among our primary recommendations.
Commercial vehicles can serve double duty
The attributes of commercial fleet vehicles that require different charging considerations also make them excellent candidates for providing important grid and resiliency services. Their big batteries and the fact that certain vehicles (such as buses) often sit idle for long periods of time make them powerful sources of energy.
Building out infrastructure that allows for smart (managed) charging to concentrate energy usage during times of lower demand and allows power to flow to and from the battery can turn fleets into rolling power plants. An emerging fleet of clean, mobile power sources can decrease overall grid demand and even provide power to schools, businesses or homes during electricity outages. These capabilities also allow trucks and buses to help integrate the increasing amounts of renewable energy on the grid.
America’s transportation future is zero-emission, and President Biden’s infrastructure package provides a welcome boost and focus to the transition. Expanding our collective zero-emission transportation vision to include medium- and heady-duty vehicles will maximize the health, climate and equity benefits electric transportation can offer.
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