California’s port truck-charging plan attracts big investors
LOS ANGELES — California’s bustling seaports, dominated by massive container vessels and soaring cranes, may seem an unlikely setting for investors seeking to capitalize on the “green” revolution.
But thanks to the state’s plan to phase out by 2035 heavy-duty diesel trucks that haul containers to ships and warehouses, the ports have become ground zero for forward-looking investors who are lining up to build charging stations for the electric semis that will eventually serve those trade gateways.
Among the companies pouring in money are real estate firm CBRE Group Group, warehouse giant Prologis Inc and investment manager BlackRock Inc, who are eying a payday when replacement trucks are in wider use.
The California Energy Commission (CEC) estimates the state will need 157,000 medium and heavy-duty chargers by 2030 to support a range of trucks — including some 30,000 drayage rigs that ferry cargo from ports. It has dedicated $1.7 billion to build those chargers and estimates there are 1,000 already in use by semis and buses.
The United States has been slower to embrace electric vehicles, including electric semi trucks, than Europe and Asia. Drayage, or the transport of freight from an ocean port to a destination, is the sector best suited to begin closing that gap. That is because the shorter, more predictable round trips in this type of transport match the battery capacity of existing rigs or hauling trucks, which can be charged overnight in company yards rather than with fast highway chargers that require more energy and infrastructure.
“The challenge is land and power,” said Rob Shaw, managing director of private infrastructure at CBRE Investment Management.
Oakland, California-based startup Forum Mobility in January announced a $400 million joint venture with CBRE Investment Management and Homecoming Capital to build electric charging infrastructure to support the drayage industry. Meanwhile, BlackRock is part of another group investing $650 million to build chargers along freight routes.
The nation’s busiest port complex at Los Angeles and Long Beach has a smattering of heavy- and medium-duty chargers for truck drivers. Because port real estate is at a premium, most early drayage charging projects will be “behind the fence” on trucking company property, experts said.
The push by CBRE and other real estate and infrastructure investors could help overcome a “chicken-and-egg” electric truck adoption lag in the United States, said Henrik Holland, global head of Prologis Mobility. Electric trucks cannot operate without chargers, but it does not make sense to build chargers if drivers are not using electric trucks.
Prologis, the biggest U.S. warehouse owner, created its mobility business to install electric truck chargers and solar panels. Warehouse tenants in Southern California’s freight corridor are subject to clean air rules that require them to offset pollution from trucks that visit their facilities.
Prologis already has put a total of 38 dual-port chargers from Swedish-Swiss manufacturer ABB Ltd on two Los Angeles-area properties for a warehouse and distribution business owned by shipping giant Maersk that is switching to an electric fleet.
“A marriage between real estate and energy infrastructure” will be needed to accelerate the transition to electric-powered trucking, Prologis Mobility’s Holland said.
Stung by the lack of public chargers, major electric truck makers are jumping in to build the infrastructure needed to underpin big rig sales but it will take time.
“Project lead times for depot-based fast charging are currently being measured in years, instead of weeks or months,” said John O’Leary, CEO of Daimler Truck Holding AG’s Daimler Truck North America.
The electric truck manufacturer joined with BlackRock Renewable Power and NextEra Energy Resources on a $650 million venture to build high-performance charging sites on critical freight routes in Southern California, the U.S. Northeast and Texas, the sites of major seaports.
Multiple industry officials said permitting and approvals on the electrification side are a limiting factor. Nevertheless, they believe there will be enough chargers for port trucking by 2035 because the projects are less complex.
“2035 is 12 years out … a lot can be done in that time,” infrastructure consultant Charlie Allcock said.
Industry officials agree the success of commercial truck charging projects hinges not on power generation but on connecting sites with needed energy.
“Right now you can go order a vehicle, have it manufactured from raw materials and then delivered to you faster than the average line extension takes,” said Greg Sarvas, electric transportation program manager at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, referring to the process of bringing power to a site.
Getting in front of demand is difficult since energy regulators require power companies to build to need rather than to forecasts, utility executives said.
“That puts us in a little bit of a crunch,” said Chanel Parson, director of building and transportation electrification at utility Southern California Edison, owned by Edison International.
Transmission line installations can take months to years, utility executives said. Beyond that, power companies must grapple with shortages of key parts including some transformers and switch gear.
Meanwhile, the search is on for sites with excess power, known as “headroom,” to accommodate charger projects.
Hight Logistics President Rudy Diaz said the Forum Mobility team that oversaw his electric charger project in Long Beach found “a needle in a haystack.” A previous tenant, he said, had installed an 800-amp panel to run the broken-down hay bailer in his warehouse.
That defunct equipment was wired with enough power for 80% of the first phase of his drayage electrification project. Diaz had four dual-port chargers made by Tellus Power Green up and running in under a year.
“It’s a relic,” Diaz said of the dusty bailer. “Bless that thing.”