NREL Leads the Charge to Electric Trucks at Port of New York and New Jersey

Jan. 30, 2023 | By Anna Squires | Contact media relations

Semi-trucks load colorful shipping containers in a busy port.
A team of NREL researchers collected detailed vehicle analysis to show how drayage trucks operating at the Port of New York and New Jersey could be strong candidates for electrification. Each electrified truck would help slash 76 tons of carbon emissions per truck each year. Photo from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey

If goods are the lifeblood of global trade, ports are America's arteries, helping to pump cargo in and out of the United States. But the work of ports—and the diesel-fueled drayage trucks that move freight to warehouses and rail yards—comes at a steep cost: Their operations emit airborne toxins, like particulate matter, oxides of nitrogen, and greenhouse gases, and create smog, which harms the health of surrounding communities and the environment.

Now, researchers from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), in partnership with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) and several of its tenants, have compiled detailed information on what it could take to electrify drayage truck operations at the nation's busiest port.

In the midst of 2021's record-breaking port operations, a team of NREL researchers collected and analyzed data from three private drayage truck fleets that haul shipping containers from the port to warehouses and railyards across several northeastern states. After installing data loggers in the big rigs' diagnostic ports, the researchers logged detailed vehicle and engine data over a month of operations.

Analysis of the data—more than 36 million data entries measuring vehicle speed, emissions, fuel consumption, and horsepower—showed what it would take, in terms of vehicle energy storage and charging power levels, to transition these trucks to electric battery-powered alternatives.

Using readily available technology, the researchers determined that a substantial portion of the studied drayage trucks' operating days could be accomplished with electric trucks already on the market. Fully electrifying the fleets that operate out of the port would require significant investment, largely in infrastructure upgrades, including installing high-power vehicle charging stations and transformers. The transition would be eased, too, with technology that is still in development, including lower-cost battery packs and higher-power charging equipment.

But considering the impact on the environment and health of surrounding communities, the benefits could outweigh the costs. If the fleets in the study were to electrify their vehicles tomorrow, they could eliminate up to 76 tons of carbon emissions per truck each year and slash vehicle tailpipe and carbon emissions by 75%.

"Drayage is part of port operation, and it's vital for us to have global trade," said Andrew Kotz, an NREL commercial vehicle technologies researcher and one of the members of the research team. "Without drayage, we can't receive containers from ships around the world and can't compete as a global entity. But because of the emissions and pollutants produced by drayage trucks, electrifying them could produce an outsized positive impact."

Charting a Course to Zero Carbon

PANYNJ has set an ambitious goal to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The NREL research team found that a significant opportunity lies in one aspect of drayage trucks' operation: the time they spend stationary.

As the team parsed the data-logger entries, they found that drayage trucks operating in and out of the port spent nearly 10% of their total energy idling, averaging about four hours a day. A small group of truck operations spent as many as 12 combined hours a day stationary, their engines burning diesel while drivers waited at stoplights, queued to pick up and unload their cargo, or lined up to enter terminals.

These "dwell periods," Kotz said, are important for multiple reasons.

First, they point to opportunities where switching to electric battery-powered vehicles would create immediate emissions reductions. Unlike conventional vehicles, battery-electric vehicles use very little energy while stopped, and they do not produce emissions.

Second, the hours that trucks spend stationary throughout the day create built-in charging opportunities for electric vehicles. If drayage truck operators had charging stations nearby, these one-to-two-hour stops provide them an opportunity for either a full fast charge or a "top off" from a slow-charging station.

But the key to either of these scenarios is the maritime community's ability to upgrade its infrastructure with charging stations, in addition to buy-in from local government and utilities companies. Space within the port and nearby terminals is limited—and the port's existing infrastructure is not primed for new upgrades.

"None of the marine facilities in New York were built with the electrical capacity to accommodate additional megawatts of power, which they would need to charge fleets of battery electric trucks," Kotz said. "To expand local electric grid infrastructure and figure out where to install everything in a very densely populated area, close collaboration between the Port Authority, electric utilities, and other partners will be key."

For all these reasons, NREL's researchers spent significant time analyzing the data to understand how the maritime community could electrify its fleets, all while considering the limitations of the existing infrastructure and current technology.

The team's analysis ultimately showed that only a small fraction of drayage trucks operating in and out of the port—those carrying over 80,000 pounds or traveling more than 350 miles in one day—are poor candidates for electrification. With time to advance technologies like lower-cost electric batteries and fast-charging stations, and with improvements to the port's electrical grid, electric trucks could one day replace a significant portion of diesel drayage truck operations.

"On top of learning what could be electrified now, we also wanted to know, 'What would it take to electrify all of these vehicles in the future?'" Kotz said.

Applied Science, Grounded in Reality

The kind of practical, unbiased analysis performed at the Port of New York and New Jersey is a hallmark of NREL's applied research. And it is just one of many studies examining the potential for ports to transition to net-zero-emission operations.

In 2012, NREL researchers began work on a project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy's Vehicle Technologies Office, known as ZECT 1: the Zero Emission Drayage Truck Demonstration project. ZECT 1 partners developed some of the first prototypes of Class-8 electric drayage trucks and demonstrated their ability to operate successfully at the Port of Los Angeles and Port of Long Beach. The project's successor, ZECT 2, laid the groundwork for truck manufacturers to develop commercially available electric and fuel-cell drayage trucks—and for ports to work with their tenant fleets to reduce carbon emissions and criteria pollutants by implementing zero-emission vehicles.

"We're recognized as an objective evaluator and a trusted source of information on vehicle and charging technology," said Ken Kelly, NREL's chief engineer for commercial vehicle electrification and one of the study's principal investigators. "Our partners value that we understand how to work with fleets, collect detailed data, evaluate it, and provide results to inform implementation decisions. At the same time, we have deep roots in data analysis, the latest technology developments like megawatt-scale charging infrastructure, and a core understanding of the vehicle, charging, and fuel requirements."

Most importantly, this work demonstrates that it is possible to decarbonize a critical but high-polluting sector, ultimately impacting not just those who live near the coast but also people across the nation.

"You might think of ports as just affecting coastal folks who live near the sea," Kotz said. "But many states, like Colorado and Utah, have inland ports where cargo is moved by rail, and we have research projects at those ports, too. The results that we develop in New York could be key to replicating an equally measurable impact in those places and elsewhere across the nation."

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Tags: Transportation