Trucking exec talks about challenges of electric vehicles, power sources

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 1,097 views 

Craig Harper, executive vice president and chief sustainability officer at J.B. Hunt Transport

Craig Harper, executive vice president and chief sustainability officer at J.B. Hunt Transport, said he’s been immersed in learning all he could about electric and autonomous vehicles since 2016.

“We have to be educated about all forms of energy today, understand where it comes from and what its by-products are and impact on people around the world,” Harper said as he showed a short video of cobalt miners in the Democratic Republic of the Congo emerging from the shallow mines and families cheering when they emerged alive.

Harper was a presenter Wednesday (Nov. 1) during the NWA Tech Summit in Rogers.

Cobalt is critical to making electronic vehicle batteries. Harper said just because something appears to be better for the planet does not necessarily mean it is. But, Harper said he and his employer know electronic and autonomous transportation are coming and they are investing in the technologies.

“There’s been a ton of progress made since 2016 but we still have many challenges as technology is ahead of infrastructure and also policy in many cases,” Harper said.

Starting in 2024, He said all new trucks serving ports in California must have 0 emissions.

“I can’t wait to have more zero emissions trucks. We have five of those today and drivers love them. You don’t smell like diesel, they are quiet and powerful but there are problems. You don’t have the range that is one-fifth of what diesel provides. It also weighs more and it takes longer to charge. It costs three times as much as a diesel rig and if you can find a charging station and it is working,” Harper said.

He said 21% of charging stations are down at any given time, according to a recent report from J.D. Powers.

“With all of those issues, we have policy coming that will require EVs and we will see where all this shakes out. We are applying for the power we will need to fuel these vehicles. That’s why I learn all I can about access to clean and reliable energy,” Harper said.

By 2040 for countries to meet their climate goals and achieve energy security priorities, millions of miles of transmission lines must be added or replaced and the investment to upgrade the grid is estimated at $600 billion annually to 2030, according to the International Energy Agency.

“We have to get more electricity around the world but it’s confusing to understand which way we should go. That’s why we have gathered all the information we can,” Harper said. “Before we make some bold statement or get on the bandwagon to cut off one energy source, we need to understand that the whole world needs more energy, some just to improve their daily lives, others to power their plants and operate their infrastructures. The world needs more not less,” Harper said.

He said the average age of power plants in the U.S. is 29 years. He said there are 400 coal plants with an average age of 45 years, and 1,743 power plants run on natural gas and the average age is 22 years old. There are 61 nuclear plants with an average age of 39 years. Last year 21.5% of total electricity sourced in the U.S. was from renewable methods such as wind, water, solar, biomass and geothermal. Nuclear provided 18.2%, coal 19.6% and natural gas 39.8%.

“No one wants to do with less. We have to find a way to be more sustainable around the globe, across our companies and households. When you dig into the sources of electricity it’s easy to see fossil fuels still play a critical role in supplying the energy we need. As we look at clean alternatives, we also have to keep what we already have. Fossil fuel engines are going to be around for some time yet,” he said.

Harper said it’s important to look at the energy that goes into production and the cleaner carbon footprint. He said the electric battery is not as clean as it was once thought to be. He said the shorter range, heavier weights and lost time in charging means he needs more trucks to do the same work. He said large charging stations that have popped up in recent months that say they can charge 200 trucks at one time will need backup sources such as generators at least three days of week when more trucks are recharging because of how freight demand typically flows.

“We also can get caught up with what we are going to have and lose sight of what we have today. In intermodal we can help shippers get a 60% reduction in carbon emissions per shipment. We are a large player in the intermodal logistics space and continue to move more customers to this mode when they are looking for a greener solution,” Harper said.

He said Toyota has a promising technology that uses less cobalt and charges faster with a range of nearly 700 miles for a passenger car they are close to releasing. He said there will be a commercial truck version coming later and that holds promise. Harper said EV and hydrogen cell options each hold promise but there has not been any big shift in either direction.

“I welcome the greener solutions. We are investing in all of them and staying close to the fuel providers that have served us for many years as I don’t think they will sit still and let others take market share. They will be the first to move with hydrogen cell fueling or electric charging when there is substantial advancement in one direction or the other,” Harper said.