July 07, 2020

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Commercial vehicles can require large volumes of stored energy to propel them over extended distances. The trade-off between an electric battery’s added weight and volume, and the storage space available for freight has long been identified as a barrier in the electrification of commercial vehicles. Maximising the energy batteries can hold for a given volume and weight is a notable technology challenge in the electrification of large, heavy-duty or long-haul transport. As a result, many industry experts believe the incumbent technology, the diesel engine, will continue to power commercial vehicles for the foreseeable future.

A whitepaper by Cummins, the world’s largest independent manufacturer of diesel engines, suggests the potential to transform commercial fleets is already clear. Understanding how to accelerate the adoption of these technologies, while maintaining productivity and prosperity, is less well understood. The whitepaper, The Future of Fleets: The road to electrified power for commercial vehicles, reviews the technological, infrastructural, economic and regulatory factors impacting the broader adoption of electrified powertrains.

Since 1919, Cummins has been a leader in the manufacture and sale of diesel engines. Based in Columbus, Indiana, U.S.A., Cummins offers a portfolio of energy solutions that includes natural gas and electrified power and has committed USD500 million into the research and development of electrification — to diversify its offering and reduce its reliance on fossil fuels. Cummins intends to continue investing in diesel and other technologies, maintaining ongoing efforts to minimise particulate matter and nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions.

The past decade has seen an 85% decline in battery prices courtesy of a surge in lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery production. Prices fell to an average of USD176 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) in 2018, versus USD1,160 per kWh in 2010, according to a Lithium-Ion Battery Price Survey from BloombergNEF. Energy density per-kilogram of Li-ion batteries has more than doubled since becoming commercially viable. During the same period, per-litre density has tripled. Maturing technologies are enabling the storage of more power in a smaller volume and offer a greater opportunity to electrify more varied types of vehicles.

Gillig Cummins Electric Bus Fleet Santa Monica

Photo courtesy of Cummins

Optimising battery design, by utilising innovative materials for anode and cathode manufacturing, is a major focus for Cummins as they look to improve capacity, optimise charge rates and maximise battery life. In fact, all battery manufacturers are diversifying their portfolios to meet the “specific industrial requirements of commercial and off-highway vehicles,” says Cummins. But will these efforts kickstart the widespread commercial adoption of electric vehicles (EV)?

The upfront cost of EVs remains higher than the diesel alternative. Despite the expense associated with electrifying commercial vehicle fleets, parity in the total cost of ownership may be close at hand for many applications, says Cummins. Advancements in lithium extraction processes, efficiencies, and economies of scale continue to drag down costs.  A recent paper by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) projects the total lifetime cost of ownership of battery-electric heavy-duty fleets will vary between 25% more and 25% less than the diesel equivalent over the next 10 years. Cost efficiencies will favour larger investment projects.

Cummins already has electric buses and trucks on the road. The Cummins PowerDrive™ 7000 EV vehicle developers kit enables school bus manufacturers to quickly create electric school bus solutions with zero-emissions and a 120-mile all-electric range. The company claims performance that is equivalent or superior to conventional engines. In the construction equipment market, a collaboration between Cummins and Hyundai Construction Equipment (HCE) has resulted in the development of 3.5-ton electric-powered mini excavators that can complete an entire eight-hour shift, with less than three hours to fully charge.

However, infrastructure continues to be a major advantage in the continuing use of fossil fuels and the internal combustion engine. The infrastructure charging network is yet to reach a level of maturity to enable a shift to electrification at scale. “Time” is the critical variable from an infrastructure perspective, says Cummins.

The importance of overcoming the time hurdle cannot be overstated. The length of time it takes to charge an electric vehicle is dictated by the power source. Additional power offers a reduction in charging time. The whitepaper acknowledges plans to install 300 rapid chargers in the UK by 2020 but calls for further investment from the British government, alongside incentives for private-sector charging providers, to enable a dramatic expansion over the next two years.

In a commercial environment, downtime means cost. The whitepaper stresses a range of consequences. Faster charging enables a reduction in the physical space required for charging and a decrease in the number of charging points required. Shorter charging downtimes also have implications for the size of the commercial fleet a business is required to maintain. The proximity of rapid and ultra-rapid charging points is essential to ensure earnings are not impacted. In instances where vehicles are shared between multiple drivers on multiple routes, such as with buses, downtime is particularly impactful.

Cummins PowerDrive EV for Trucks

Image courtesy of Cummins

The Cummins report suggests charging a fleet of 30 buses at 120kW would add 3.6MW to a site’s peak power demand, the equivalent energy required to power more than 1,000 homes. Clearly, a ramp-up in commercial electrification has major implications for power grids, such as the construction of high-energy powerlines from the grid to the site, and the overnight supply of energy to vehicles when household and industrial electricity demand is at its lowest. The future may even demand entirely new configurations of buildings.

Marc Trahand, executive vice president, Marketing, at Nuvve, a global leader in vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology, called for “smart policy approaches and energy market design that can help open the door to significant commercial EV uptake.”  A contributor to the Cummins whitepaper, Trahand emphasised the major benefits of V2G, a technology that enables energy to be pushed back to the power grid from batteries that spend time idle, offering added resilience to the energy grid.

The four keys to the adoption of commercial electrification, Cummins says, are technological maturity, infrastructural capacity, economic reality, and regulatory surety.  Regulatory surety enables forward-thinking companies to transition to electrification without fears they will be left behind when an alternative solution becomes more favourable. It also allows for robust forecasting around trends and return on investment.

As the most visible source of emissions, commercial road vehicles have attracted the lion’s share of attention when it comes to electrification. However, the whitepaper highlights significant sustainability opportunities available in the construction industry – currently responsible for 23% of global carbon dioxide emissions.

As is the case with most global electrification efforts, Norway continues to lead the way. Oslo’s first zero emission construction site commenced operations in September 2019. In October 2019, the city council agreed by 2025 all public construction sites will operate emission-free machinery and transport. It is the phrasing of their policy, and the open dialogue that is key to their progress towards sustainability, suggests Cummins.

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