Special Report: Going Green – Ports Seeing Zero-Emissions Activity Come Online

Special Report: Going Green – Ports Seeing Zero-Emissions Activity Come Online
Cargo on a ship at the Port of Long Beach

For low- and zero-emissions efforts, it has been a prolific year for operations within the San Pedro Bay Port Complex.

Charging depots for battery-electric drayage and other heavy-duty trucks have been either coming online or breaking ground at rapid clip. This coincides with shippers at both the Port of Los Angeles and Port of Long Beach increasingly adopting such trucks in their inventory. Other companies have been testing out or implementing hydrogen fuel cell-powered heavy-duty equipment, while other investments to help supply that fuel are being made throughout the region.

Operators and the companies they source from are certainly motivated by the variety of emissions-related deadlines for the ports and for California. In many cases, they’re also anticipating that their investments now will pay off bigger as demand for zero-emissions equipment only rises.

“If you look at the direction the technology is going and the advantages zero-emission offers, we think these benefits will only get better,” said Henrik Holland, global head of mobility for San Francisco industrial real estate company Prologis. “When you look at the regulatory framework, we see that there will be an increasing demand for these types of projects and this type of charging capacity in these markets.”

Prologis is among the companies that have hit the ground running in this space, having last month launched a 96-outlet charging depot at one of its trucking warehouses in Torrance.

Like other charging depots, this location – under lease by shipping giant Maersk – is deliberately placed in proximity to a major freeway, in this case the 110, used by the port’s truckers.

Throughout the years of conversations about converting fossil fuel-heavy operations into zero-emission fuels, naysayers have claimed it would never pencil out financially for companies or that it was ultimately a chicken-or-egg problem. In other words, how do you justify creating a fuel supply without the demand, or vice versa?

While it remains to be seen how the industry will shake out here, it’s clear that there’s been a lot of work done to move things forward.

“I don’t think the industry and the ports have been given enough credit,” said Mario Cordero, chief executive of the Port of Long Beach. “We’re making a lot of progress, but still, there’s a lot of work we need to do.”

Last month, Prologis launched a 96-outlet charging depot at its Torrance warehouse that is being leased by Maersk.

Charging ahead

The Prologis charging depot, at present the largest such operation in Los Angeles County, took all of five months to construct. It was set up at a facility already used by a Maersk subsidiary, Performance Team, as a drayage truck checkpoint. Performance Team’s fleet of Volvo VNR Electric trucks will utilize this station to charge up.

Holland, who lives in L.A. County, said he expects this to become a norm for the industry – or at the very least, for Prologis.

“Our incentive is really to be there when our customers need us,” he said. “Many of the industry-first movers in the space are leasing properties from Prologis. Oftentimes, on-site charging at the warehouse is the most cost-effective way to do this, and it’s what we see our customers demanding.”

The 9-megawatt station will eventually be hooked into the main power grid here, but in the meantime it is powered by a microgrid system developed in conjunction with Menlo Park firm Mainspring Energy. On top of battery storage, that grid utilizes low-temperature natural gas compression – which produces very little nitrogen oxide, the primary contributor to smog – to generate power and could easily swap to using hydrogen fuel.

This has allowed Prologis to pave the way for more EV trucks while the state’s power grid is gradually upgraded to facilitate future charging demands. Even then, low-emission and high-efficiency microgrids like this may remain a part of the equation.

“Grid investments are going to struggle to keep with the demand that we’re going to see,” Holland noted.

Another challenge will simply be finding the real estate in dense Los Angeles to set up charging depots at scale – and then having to work with varying entities.

“The challenge at times with warehouse-based charging, apart from getting the power, is how much space you have at that location. We are in the process of developing dedicated charging hubs to provide additional charging capacity to our customers,” Holland said. “Finding locations for those types of sites can be challenging. You need to find a site that can get power in a reasonable time frame. It needs to be in a really good location for truck traffic. And then you’re dealing with the entitlement and permitting aspects for this new type of project.”

It’s clear Maersk is a heavy investor in battery-electric trucks. Earlier in the year, Swedish transportation company Einride – which Maersk invests in – opened a 65-unit charging station in Lynwood. For now, Maersk truckers with Einride trucks will use the station, but ultimately the depot will be opened to others on a subscription basis.

Amazon also introduced eight of its battery-electric Volvo trucks to the ports this year, part of the company’s 50-vehicle fleet on the West Coast.

Within the Port of Long Beach itself, local company WattEV last year opened a station capable of charging up to 26 trucks at once. Last month, another company – Oakland-based Forum Mobility – broke ground on what will be a 44-stall depot within that port. And yet another station under construction, this one by Virginia-based Electrify America and Rialto-based 4Gen Logistics, will bring 30 charging stalls to the Port of Long Beach.

Neri Ortuno, a truck driver for WattEV, waiting while his truck gets a charge before going back to work moving containers at the Port. (Photo by Thomas Wasper)

At the moment, there are at least 282 battery-electric drayage trucks operating at the port complex, Cordero said, and 22 hydrogen fuel cell trucks. The state is barring new sales of diesel drayage trucks in 2035 and other diesel heavy-duty trucks in 2045, so this means there remains much ground to be covered.

Cordero pointed out the ports’ Clean Truck Fee, which collects a fee from all cargo owners to help make funding available for zero-emission truck vouchers, is helping make this a reality; last year, both ports made $60 million in vouchers available thanks to that fee, which was first agreed upon in 2020 and levied in 2022.

“Back in 2020, I thought that we could get there earlier and the real year that could be making a difference was 2027,” Cordero said. “Here we are, four years later, and we have something like 300 zero-emissions trucks in the complex. That’s progress, and I do think come 2027, we’ll be increasing that percentile considerably.”

Hydrogen coming online

While battery-electric has been a mainstream vehicle option for years, hydrogen fuel cells have been a heavier lift for manufacturers. One of the big hurdles there has been the lack of infrastructure and supply, which makes it difficult and expensive to invest in.

There’s some movement to fix that.

The federal government last year made billions in funding available to various regions to create so-called “hydrogen hubs,” where the fuel is produced and powertrains manufactured. Southern California is a huge beneficiary of that funding.

One local company hoping to make hydrogen a reality is World Energy, which hopes to produce sustainable hydrogen fuel alongside its aviation fuel at its Paramount facility and pipe it directly to the ports. Another startup, Torrance-based US Hybrid, manufactures hydrogen fuel cell powertrains for heavy-duty trucks and counts many port terminal operators as clients.

Drayage trucks aren’t the only consideration here.

In February, Port of L.A. terminal operator Fenix Marine Services hosted the U.S. Department of Energy and other observers for a demonstration of a hydrogen fuel cell top loader – the vehicle that stacks cargo containers. And Paceco Corp. placed its hydrogen fuel cell rubber-tired gantry crane into full commercial operation last month.

So, hydrogen fuel cells can certainly be done. The problem to solve is making it financially feasible – particularly because it can offer quicker refueling, longer travel distances and comparable performance.

“In my view, we believe that hydrogen fuel cell is the ultimate answer for heavy duty trucks,” Cordero said. “A few years ago, had you asked me whether we’d have 22 hydrogen fuel cell trucks in the complex at this point, I would have been cautiously optimistic. I would’ve said we’ll probably get there at the end of the decade.

“There’s still challenges in terms of the cost of that fuel and that truck,” he added. “That’s obviously not a good number for commercial viability to truckers, but we’re trying to work with regulators to get the incentives to close that gap.”

David Crane, undersecretary for infrastructure at the Department of Energy, led the department’s tour of the ports in February and said he was impressed by the scale of the port and had not previously appreciated the degree to which zero-emissions could impact non-drayage equipment. Still, he felt that those trucks would ultimately provide the platform to make hydrogen viable – and that it would almost certainly have to involve our ports here.

“The best toehold to have into getting going in heavy-duty land transport is drayage,” he said, “so we as a federal government really need to lean in and do what it takes where drayage exists – of course, this is the biggest amount of drayage in the whole country – and see what we can do to get that converted to hydrogen.”

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