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INTERMODAL UPDATE – TRUCKS: New Fueling Options Poised to Transform Trucking

Autonomy, ELD mandates and driver shortages are making headlines, but it is the rising number of fueling options that might have the biggest effect on ports and their relationships with the trucking industry.

* By Sandy Smith *

The trucking industry is experiencing some monumental changes – and more are expected in the near future. Autonomous vehicle technology, electronic logging device mandates and driver shortages are just a few of the terms trending in the news. But, it is the rising number of fueling options that might have the biggest effect on ports and their relationships with the trucking industry. And, financially, the effect could turn ports’ business models upside down.

There is a saying about rising tides lifting all boats, but when it’s fuel prices on the rise, the opposite effect is in place. Given that the average semi-truck gets just over six miles per gallon, gasoline prices can have a huge drag on their business model.

As gas prices have crept up in 2018, conversations have revived around alternative energy sources. But unlike the last major fuel price spike during the Great Recession, alternatives are much more viable. In 2007-2008, the alternative fuel industry was merely a promise, at best. Passenger cars were in their infancy – with hybrid electric models. All-electric vehicles were still in development. And there was no discussion at all about using the technology to power long-haul, heavy-load trucks. This time, there is.

At the Port of Long Beach, alternative fuels aren’t driven so much by fuel prices, but by the push for cleaner air. Fossil fuels emit more greenhouse gas emissions and particulates than some of the cleaner alternatives.

The Port of Long Beach and the Port of Los Angeles teamed up for a 2006 Clean Air Action Plan, which was updated in 2017. That later plan “laid out strategies to get to zero emissions by 2030 and for on-road trucks by 2035. These are really ambitious goals,” said Heather Tomley, the Port of Long Beach’s Director of Environmental Planning.

It means exploring all facets of fuel alternatives. “We’re looking at battery electric technologies, testing fuel cells. We think natural gas can have a role, especially in the early years.”

The port is working with developers to host demonstrations so that port operators can explore technologies which might serve their needs. Ultimately, Tomley said, port operators will be the final determinant of what technologies are adopted.

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