There’s a ton of press right now about how the future of transportation is all-electric.
And all major automakers have signaled with big investments that they’re going all-in on electric vehicles (EVs).
But a number of things still need to come together to make electrification practical on a large scale. Plus, fleet managers have valid concerns about how to make the transition.
What are some of the biggest EV challenges to widespread fleet adoption? And what do fleets, utility companies, OEMs and policymakers need to think about to address those challenges?
UFP recently spoke with George Survant – the principal at Fleet Mace Consulting and a fleet leader in the utility and telecom industry for over four decades – to get his perspective.
Survant spearheaded fleet electrification initiatives at Florida Power & Light and served as chairman of the board at CALSTART (https://calstart.org), a national nonprofit consortium that works with member organizations to overcome barriers to the adoption of clean vehicles.
While we discussed a wide range of potential roadblocks for EVs, the following four questions and answers are especially relevant to utility fleets.
1. How will utility fleets recharge equipment during storm response operations?
How does the industry go all-electric if, during storm response, you don't have electricity?
“Under the current conditions, it can’t,” Survant said.
When Survant worked at Florida Power & Light, the company sent storm crews to Texas in the aftermath of a hurricane. “The local infrastructure was so damaged that we sent five or six 9,000-gallon-tank wagons of diesel fuel with our crews,” Survant said. “I also had six trucks cycling to and from the next available port that had fuel. We were having to bring fuel from Bainbridge, Georgia, to Houston on a continuous basis. So, when you talk about electric vehicles in storm response situations, you’re opening a whole can of worms because you can bring some truck-mounted generators to do recharging. But you need to bring fuel to power those generators.”
In an all-electric world, where will that fuel come from?
2. How will the auto industry address supply chain bottlenecks as EV sales ramp up?
“If you need a filter for your car, you probably have five choices within 20 miles on where you could buy that part,” Survant said. “But where are you going to find a coupling for a 400-volt battery management system? You have to go back to the manufacturer that’s somewhere at the OEM site for the battery or even out of the country. So, there’s the supply chain that has to be rigorously invested in.”
Otherwise, fleets will have to deal with significant lead-time issues. “If I had to replace an engine in a 65-foot over-center material handler or even a pickup truck, I could get a crate motor within three working days,” Survant said. “The electric traction motor might be coming from Germany. Three days is not in the cards.”
3. What’s the plan for training and expanding the technician workforce to support EV growth?
“The number of qualified technicians capable of making smart diagnostic evaluations on electric vehicles today is very small,” Survant said. “So, we have talent issues. Where are these technicians going to come from?”
Today, the industry is still in the early stages of transitioning to EVs, which presents unique challenges with workforce development as EV market share increases, Survant explained.
“Last year in North America, a record number of about 4% of total vehicle sales were either hybrids or battery-electric vehicles. And arguably, this year, we might double that,” Survant said. “But suppose you're a dealership that sells 3,000 total units a year, with about 10% – or 300 units – being EVs. How many of your work bays in your shop are you going to devote to pure electric support? How many technicians can you afford to change and train to work on EVs? And, if you invest in training that technician, how long will it be before they get to exercise those talents on a regular enough basis to keep their skills sharp?”
4. How can policymakers and regulators at all levels of government help streamline the permitting processes for building on-site charging infrastructure?
“Permitting can be a nightmare. You can get a state operating permit and not get a city or a county permit. And the fire marshal may object to it,” Survant said. “Now, some states like Illinois have a mayors group where they’ve talked about uniform permitting standards. And that’s a great step forward, but it's not widespread yet.”
Why is permitting efficiency so important to supporting EV growth?
“The problem with permitting is not that the permit won't happen because it will,” Survant said. “But waiting on permits [to build out charging infrastructure] might introduce a nine- to 10-month delay after you bought the trucks. That's a train wreck.”
And it’s not like you can just find any old place to charge your EV fleet because the power requirements are enormous.
“The prevailing opinion seems to be that a 600-kilowatt-hour battery pack is what it's going to take for a Class 7 or Class 8 truck. That size battery can require gigawatts of charging capacity. That's a big number,” Survant said.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, 1 gigawatt has the same output as 2,000 Z06 Corvette engines (that produce 650 horsepower), 9,090 Nissan Leafs or 412 utility-scale wind turbines.
That’s a lot of power to charge one truck. Now imagine a fleet that needs to charge hundreds or even thousands of large electric trucks.
The Bottom Line
“We have a whole set of new challenges with electrification that most fleet managers have never professionally addressed,” Survant said. “There are a handful of us who’ve been investing in hybrid or fully electric vehicles for more than a decade, but that's a very, very small number, and we were in very selective locations.”
Survant’s advice to utility fleet professionals? “Make sure you have a razor-sharp mission fit with the vehicles you start to electrify,” he said. “Build your electrification strategy not in terms of future limitations but current limitations – what’s the real world you live in today, not what you want it to be.”