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One size doesn’t fit all: How commercial EVs present unique challenges for charging infrastructure

Mainstreaming medium- and heavy-duty electric fleets can learn something from passenger vehicle electrification.

When most people envision climate action, images of solar panels and wind farms often come to mind. However, electricity generation is only part of the decarbonization puzzle. The climate crisis calls for an all-hands-on-deck approach to decarbonizing the world’s goods and services, including how they are designed, produced, sourced and transported.

In 2016, the transportation sector overtook the electricity sector as the No. 1 source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Emissions from the transportation sector come primarily from burning gasoline and diesel to power our cars, trucks, ships, trains and planes. Almost a quarter of transportation-related emissions come from the medium- and heavy-duty trucks used primarily for freight transportation.

In other words, the carbon footprint of that free two-day shipping we all love so much is anything but small. In fact, according to global e-commerce company Etsy, shipping accounts for 98 percent of its total carbon emissions. Companies such as Etsy and Amazon are stepping up to reduce their shipping-related emissions. Etsy recently committed to offsetting 100 percent of its shipping-generated carbon emissions, and Amazon recently announced its Shipment Zero vision to have 50 percent of all shipments be net zero carbon by 2030, with eventually all shipments being net zero.

This is encouraging to see, and much progress already has been made thanks to the adoption of efficiency technologies, improved operational practices and fuel switching from gasoline and diesel to biofuels and natural gas. But there is still a lot of room for improvement.

Electrifying freight transport for deep decarbonization

One revolutionary technology that promises to rapidly and deeply decarbonize the freight transport sector is electrification. Electric vehicles (EVs), which have been on the market in the passenger vehicle space for decades, are available for many commercial applications. Fully electric models are available for vehicles ranging from urban delivery vans all the way up to big rigs. In fact, electric trucks dominate the agenda at this year’s Green Truck Summit in Indianapolis.

Over nine countries and a dozen cities or states — primarily in Europe — have announced bans on combustion engines in the past few years.
Electrification in the transport sector is driven predominantly by fleets’ desires to achieve their sustainability goals and lower their total cost of ownership. It’s also gaining popularity as cities across the globe begin to outlaw internal combustion engines within their borders. Over nine countries and a dozen cities or states — primarily in Europe — have announced bans on combustion engines in the past few years. If you have a fleet that relies on access to city streets to make deliveries, chances are you’re paying close attention to the electrification conversation.

An important part of that conversation are the implementation challenges that come along with electric trucks. Chief among them, according to research by Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) in partnership with the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE), is inadequate charging infrastructure. In fact, our research, as well as other studies by GreenBiz and UPS, ACT Research, and The Climate Group identified inadequate charging infrastructure as one of the biggest barriers to near-term electric truck adoption.

Unique considerations for commercial EVs  

With EVs at the intersection of our extensive mobility and electricity work, RMI has been at the cutting edge of thought leadership about passenger EVs and their associated charging challenges for years. This work is captured most notably in our 2017 report, "From Gas to Grid: Building Charging Infrastructure to Power Electric Vehicle Demand."

However, while there are certainly lessons learned from our work on passenger vehicle electrification, medium- and heavy-duty commercial fleets have some unique characteristics that can make charging challenges much more formidable, including power demand, scale and mission-focused operations.

Power demand: While the benefits of electric vehicles can be huge, so are the power requirements for charging them. As an example, while a Nissan Leaf has a 40-kWh battery on board, a Chanje V8100 medium-duty panel van (PDF) has a 100-kWh battery, and Freightliner’s eCascadia semi-truck boasts a 550-kWh battery. While charging these larger batteries overnight (for fleets with one or two shift operations) may be feasible even with a Level 2 charger — especially for the delivery van — fleets with less time to charge may require more power all at once.

This level of power can put a much larger strain on the electrical grid than passenger vehicle chargers, and can result in time-intensive negotiations and costly demand charges.
Fleets with this sort of demand likely will need DC fast charging (DCFC). And while DCFC in the passenger vehicle market has come to refer to chargers capable of supplying anywhere from 25 to 350 kW of power, the medium- and heavy-duty commercial vehicle market is already calling for chargers as large as 1 MW or greater. This level of power can put a much larger strain on the electrical grid than passenger vehicle chargers, and can result in time-intensive negotiations with local utilities and costly demand charges.

Scale: This challenge is amplified when multiple electric trucks need to be charged at the same facility, an issue not experienced by many passenger EV owners, who often only need to worry about charging one vehicle at a time. A fleet manager responsible for ensuring that 10, 20, or even 100 trucks are charged and ready to go for their first shift may struggle with how best to plan the necessary charging infrastructure to minimize capital and installation costs as well as operating expenses.

Mission-focused operations: Finally, commercial EVs are also different in that their operations are much less flexible than those of light-duty passenger vehicles. That is, fleets are in business to transport things by a specific time for customers. Therefore, those fleets can’t sacrifice efficiency and productivity without risking their business. Operations — including charging and delivery times — are only as flexible as the customer.

This means it may be more difficult for fleets to appease utilities and shift charging to off-peak periods when the grid has more excess capacity. Again, this can make it harder for fleets to avoid high energy prices due to unfavorable time-of-use rates, whereas an individual with a personal EV may be more able to plan a schedule around off-peak charging times.

Amping up: charging infrastructure for electric trucks

In our recently released third Guidance Report, "Amping Up: Charging Infrastructure for Electric Trucks," RMI and NACFE examine these challenges and detail how fleets should go about overcoming them, including the multiple factors to consider in infrastructure planning for charging commercial battery electric vehicles (CBEVs).

RMI and NACFE examine challenges of charging infrastructure for electric trucks and how fleets can overcome them in their latest Guidance Report.

The report also highlights the fact that although there is no "one size fits all" solution to charging, there are common steps and considerations that any fleet considering deployment of electric trucks should undertake in order to ensure it has a complementary and cost-effective charging strategy in place:

  • Engaging the utility company;
  • Choosing vehicles;
  • Determining charging needs;
  • Assessing financing options;
  • Procuring charging components;
  • Designing a site plan;
  • Applying for necessary permits; and
  • Deploying your charging infrastructure

Electric truck charging procurement road map

While we shouldn’t assume any of the current charging-infrastructure challenges are trivial, none are insurmountable. Thomas Edison’s first patent for the light bulb was filed in 1879, well before there was a North American power grid. Light bulb and electric motor technology ignited national development of new infrastructure to adapt society to the new technology rather than forcing the technology to fit poorly into the existing infrastructure.

The power grid infrastructure was demand-driven based on the success of the electric devices that needed it. This lag between product introduction and infrastructure investment has been repeated many times, and there’s no reason to think it won’t be repeated for CBEV charging infrastructure as well.

The full report, as well as an executive summary, infographics and accompanying video, are available here.

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