T. Boone Pickens Is Wrong: Electric Vehicles Can Haul Cargo

By · August 15, 2013

Pickens shares his views on electric cars, in a video posted to YouTube last week.

T. Boone Pickens supports electric vehicles—as long you don't claim that electric propulsion can work for big-rig trucks, locomotives or cargo ships. The business magnate and corporate raider, who made his fortune in the oil and gas industries, stated that "the battery will not move an 18-wheeler" and that internal combustion engines using natural gas or diesel are the only way to haul cargo. Is he right?

While there are a number of companies, like Smith Electric Vehicles or EVI USA, building medium duty all electric trucks, Class 8 18-wheel trucks are much bigger. Class 8 trucks have 80,000 pounds of hauling capacity versus the 20,000-pound capacity of smaller trucks. Yet, there are several companies experimenting with electric Class 8 trucks.

For the most part, these trucks are for around-town use rather than long hauls. The clearest use-case for an all-electric Class 8 truck is hauling containers between a shipping facility, like the Port of Los Angeles, and rail terminals. Thousands of diesel powered Class 8 trucks operate daily in that corridor, and are a major contributor to local air pollution.

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Balqon's Nautilus XE30

In the Electric Drayage Demonstration—a project begun in 2012, and extending to 2015—Class 8 trucks from four companies are in daily use in test fleets operating between the Port of LA and nearby rail terminals. Three of the models are all-electric trucks, built by Balqon, US Hybrid and TransPower. These have battery pack ranging up to a huge 380 kilowatt-hours; high powered charging units up to 160 kilowatts; recharge time as low as 1 hour; and a driving range up to 150 miles.

Another idea for electric trucks comes from Swedish truck maker Scania, and German electronics giant Siemens. Borrowing the overhead wire system normally used for electric trains, the companies mounted a system on an electric truck, so you don't have to carry a large battery pack. The system is undergoing testing in Germany, and could see deployment in a few years.

Electric trains in daily service around the world prove that electric vehicles are capable of handling large loads—even if they don't carry their own electricity in batteries. Electric high-speed trains travel at speeds of 200 miles an hour, or faster. They can go anywhere that wires can be strung.

The Nordled / Siemens electric ferry

Then, there is the MS Tûranor PlanetSolar, a large solar powered electric catamaran. In May 2012, it became the first solar electric vehicle to circumnavigate the globe. The solar panels on board are big enough to generate several hundred kilowatt-hours of electricity per day.

Siemens Norway is also working to put an all-electric ferry into service in Norway in 2015. The full size car ferry, 80 meters long, is powered by two 450 kilowatt electric motors, and carries a 1,000 kilowatt-hour battery pack. (Not a typo.) That's enough for a few trips across the fjord, each trip taking 20 minutes for a six-kilometer crossing. Carrying capacity is 360 passengers and 120 vehicles. To avoid swamping the local power grid when the ship docks to recharge, a 260 kilowatt-hour energy storage unit located on shore is used to recharge the ferry boat.

Long-Term Trends

A conventional ferry traveling the same route consumes about 1 million liters of diesel fuel, and emits 2,680 tons of carbon dioxide and 37 tons of nitrogen oxides each year. Because local electricity is produced entirely by hydropower, it's carbon-free—answering Pickens's challenge that the electricity for electric cars "has to come from somewhere." Siemens claims there are 50 routes in Norway where such electrically powered ferries could operate profitably, especially considering falling battery pack costs.

While current electric vehicles can't handle every use case for heavy shipping, the possibilities are expanding every day. Battery pack prices are falling, and their energy density is expected to significantly increase in the coming years. That will be the key to making all-electric shipping economically and technically feasible, and widely deployed—beginning the long-term process of displacing natural gas and diesel with cleaner transportation fuels.

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