'Clean Fleets' plan could strand trucks, farm goods
By Caleb Hampton
The California Air Resources Board is considering a proposed regulation to phase out big rigs and other trucks with internal combustion engines and replace them with zero-emission vehicles.
The proposed Advanced Clean Fleets regulation would include vehicles that transport agricultural commodities.
It would follow a 2020 executive order by Gov. Gavin Newsom banning the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2030, and apply to medium-duty and heavy-duty internal combustion vehicles. The proposal would force some federal agencies and trucking companies to begin converting their fleets to zero-emission vehicles in 2024 and prohibit the sale of all new fossil-fueled trucks by 2040.
Replacing these trucks and large delivery vehicles with zero-emission vehicles would augment California’s push to reduce air pollution and carbon emissions. While diesel-powered trucks represent a small fraction of the 30 million vehicles registered in the state, they produce about 70% of its smog-forming gases and 80% of carcinogenic diesel pollutants, according to the air resources board.
During a public hearing on Oct. 27, environmental advocates and industry groups clashed over the proposed rule. Environmentalists pushed for tighter rules and faster deadlines. Trucking industry leaders raised concerns about costs and the readiness of the electrical grid, vehicle technology and charging infrastructure for a statewide transition to zero-emission trucks within the proposed timeframe.
California farmers who rely on trucking companies for the timely transport of fresh commodities have also voiced concerns.
“Their concept is great, but the application is going to be hard,” said Keith Nilmeier, who farms 220 acres of oranges, peaches, apricots and grapes in Fresno County, and runs a trucking business with a fleet of 18 trucks. “They’re trying to drop it way too fast.”
Farming groups have pointed to a lack of rural charging stations and the limited range of zero-emission trucks, which they fear could slow or disrupt agricultural transport.
“Livestock, fruits and vegetables need to be transported in a timely manner to ensure food and animal safety,” Katie Little, policy advocate for the California Farm Bureau, said at the air resources board hearing. “The time required to charge these vehicles, in addition to the time needed to travel to these charging facilities, could jeopardize food security and availability.”
In typical tomato haul, for instance, a truck might travel over 800 miles in a 24-hour period. If the zero-emission vehicle’s range isn’t far enough, the charging infrastructure is not in place, or the electrical grid can’t handle the amount of big rig truck batteries that need to be charged, that could leave vehicles stranded in hot temperatures with thousands of pounds of fresh tomatoes.
State officials are pledging to invest $10 billion over several years to expand charging infrastructure and transition to zero-emission vehicles. But there currently are fewer than 2,000 zero-emission medium-duty and heavy-duty vehicles on California roads.
Joe Antonini, owner of Stockton-based Antonini Freight Express, which trucks tomatoes, almonds, walnuts and olives, said, “The infrastructure needs to be built prior to putting in place mandates.”
A coalition of commercial, transportation and agricultural organizations, including the California Farm Bureau, raised concerns about the proposed rule.
“We are extremely concerned that the proposed ACF rule will be unworkable in the real world and could result in compromising the delivery of essential goods and services to Californians,” the groups said in a letter to the air resources board.
Even if the basic infrastructure were in place, trucking company owners say the rule would impose significant hurdles.
Due to the weight of an electric truck battery, trucks could have their load capacity reduced by around 8,000 pounds, forcing companies to operate more vehicles in order to move the same tonnage. And with some of those vehicles sidelined while they charge, Antonini said his company, which has 240 trucks, may need as many as 50% more vehicles to move its freight.
With the sector already facing a driver shortage, the need for trucking companies to scale up their fleets could cause disruptions that impact farmers. “There are so many challenges on the ag side,” Antonini said. “This whole legislation will, in my opinion, have a very negative impact on California agriculture.”
Other farmers and trucking company owners raised questions about the cost of zero-emission vehicles, how long it might take to charge them and how many trucks could charge simultaneously at a single charging station.
“It’s terrifying for me to even think about,” said Tom Barcellos, owner of Barcellos Farms, a Tipton-based dairy farm and trucking company.
The upfront cost of an electric truck exceeds that of a conventional one, though the state’s air board staff project the cost of a zero-emission truck will go down as more models enter the market. They estimate that by 2035 it will be cheaper to buy and operate an electric semi-truck than a conventional one.
Nonetheless, farmers and trucking company owners expressed anxiety over the proposed timeline for transitioning the state’s fleets from diesel to electric. With diesel trucks, Barcellos said, “we can turn the key and go whenever we need to.”
The air resources board is set to hold a second hearing and a vote on the proposed rule in the spring. After a regulation is finalized, it would be subject to a public comment period.
(Caleb Hampton is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at email@example.com.)