Bottom Line
Truckstop electrification?
It could come soon, as truckstop owners begin seeing more demand

It’s a fact. Truckstops are the last commercial venue to offer electricity – also known as ‘shore power.’

Pull into a campground and you’ll see extension cords running from RVs to electrical outlets. Have a boat? Dock at a marina, and you can plug in and run all your loads. Inside, families are cooking dinner, watching TV, working on computers and relaxing in comfort thanks to AC power. What’s more, when away from RV parks and marinas, these same travelers are using inverter/chargers to convert DC power to AC for running the very same “household” devices. For these mobile travelers, it is an AC world of convenience.

AC power is beginning to find the light in big rigs as well. Many in the trucking industry are expecting a “full” AC environment within a few years. “But in reality, it’s beginning to happen now,” says Brian Lawrence, market segment manager for Xantrex Technology, a company that provides truck OEMs and aftermarket buyers with inverter/chargers and shore power connections. “Truck OEMs are offering shore power and inverter/chargers as an option, and we expect that all OEMs will be on board, offering AC power within the year.

“The next step is for OEMs to offer an AC-powered HVAC system; several are working on projects now,” Lawrence continued. “In the near future, a fleet or owner-operator will be able to spec a new truck with a complete AC infrastructure package, and they’ll visit progressive truckstops that offer the power connections. No longer will trucks have to idle. AC power will run their heating and air conditioning systems, plus their TVs, microwaves and computers.”

The change to an AC world is right around the corner, confirms George Strickland, director of engineering and construction for Travel Centers of America. “Within five years, I see a big curve up toward electrification. I definitely do,” he stated. “For the longest time, truckstop electrification has been a chicken and egg problem,” Strickland said. “Truckstops have been reluctant to offer power because they haven’t had demand from fleets; fleets haven’t made the demand because truckstops didn’t offer power and OEMs, until recently, haven’t offered shore power.”

“It’s been like a line of dominoes,” added Lawrence. “Each group has been waiting for the other to make the first move. The blocks are starting to tip over, and we feel electrification is close at hand. Trucking is the last mobile group to move toward AC power; it makes so much sense from an idling and emission reduction standpoint.”

How much sense? According to Argonne National Laboratory, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), trucks idle away more than 838 million gallons of fuel annually. What’s more, the DOE estimates that idling trucks emit more than 10.4 million tons of carbon dioxide, 59,000 tons of oxides from nitrogen, and 97,000 tons of carbon monoxide every year.

If AC power were available at truckstops today, these numbers would come down, “fast,” says Lawrence. “All the technology to realize benefits from electrification is here today. Right now, fleets and owner-operators can equip their vehicles with inverter/chargers and shore power, direct from the truck OEM,” he said. “In winter, space heaters can be used to warm the cab and sleeper, and for year round comfort, there are now aftermarket AC-powered HVAC systems available. Dometic makes a unit, and Bergstrom plans to introduce a system shortly. This way, drivers can stay warm or cool, plus operate all their devices on board without idling.”

Lawrence is not alone in his vision of truckstop electrification. Many owner-operators have converted their trucks into rolling offices and living quarters. While the concept of truckstop electrification has plenty of pros and cons for o/o’s, OOIDA members Todd and Karen Humphreys (Worland, WY and Oracle, AZ) really like the idea. The Humphreys are team drivers and log big miles everyday in their big Pete that has all the comforts of home. Todd says when he ordered the truck, he knew he and Karen would virtually be living in it, so they went the distance in creature comforts. “I knew I wanted to power the unit on AC,” says Todd. With a power inverter, they are self-contained. Shore power for the Humphreys is not a huge problem now, since they haul aircraft parts and can plug in at airports, but Todd says he can’t wait for the day when truckstops all offer power.

The impact of owner operator trends and those of major fleets is critical in pushing truckstop electricification to an actuality.

Bruce Stockton and Dan Flanagan, both see the day when truckstop electrification will become reality. “Truckstops of the future will be almost like RV parks,” predicts Stockton, vice president of maintenance for CFI, which runs more than 1,600 company trucks and 450 owner-operators in its fleet.

“They’ll offer electricity for plugging in, plus TV and phone service. In fact, we talked with Park-n-View (PNV) several times about installing electricity with their package; but they were too far along down the road with just cable and phone. We have four of our terminals plumbed with PNV. We’d like to see it augmented with AC power. We plan to talk with the new PNV owners about electricity.”

Flanagan, director of maintenance for MS Carriers, a 5,000-truck fleet that recently merged with Swift Transportation, says AC power and truckstop electrification is long overdue. “The industry has to do something to address idling from both a cost and emission standpoint,” he says. “It’s one of the things that just makes sense. We’d like to be able to find truckstops where we could shut down, plug in our trucks and power everything for driver comfort, plus we’d be able to recharge our batteries through the inverter/charger. That’s the direction we definitely want to go. Our idle time is around 40 percent and we run 144 million miles per year. If we could knock our idling time down by 10 to 15 percent, we’re talking about saving millions of dollars a year, easily.”

Flanagan says they plan to start purchasing Freightliner Century Classes with inverter/chargers and shore power connections. “The last terminal we built (MS Carriers has nine), we laid conduit so we could run any wire we’d want. We’re looking at running TV, phone and power. This way when our drivers come in, they can plug in their trucks. Just by eliminating idling at our yards will save a substantial amount of money. Then, when trucks are undergoing maintenance at our shops, we’ll plug them in so we can recharge our batteries. We then plan to invite truckstops out to our facility to show them what were doing and to tell them what we want. We also need to see what they need to do to make electricity work at their truckstops and how they can receive payment for power as an example. Our feeling is that truckstops can make extra money by supplying us with power, and we’ll save money in idling costs.”

Truckstops are ready to listen

Truckstops say they’re ready to listen. “We’re a strong believer in the technology and having electrification move forward,” says TA’s George Strickland. “We’d like to participate in this very strongly, but our position is we cannot be the leader in this. Truck OEMs and truck owners all have to want to make this happen before we can join the group. If there is a market for electricity – demand from drivers and fleets – then we’re anxious to participate.

“It’s really a triple-win situation,” Strickland added. “The drivers and fleets, travel plazas and utilities all benefit. Trucks today are becoming homes away from home. They’re really self-sufficient living quarters with home entertainment, computers, internet connection, telephones and other amenities. It would be a strong benefit to come in, turn the truck off and enjoy the life of home without having the truck idle all night long. And of course it’s a benefit to us – we’d have a quieter location and less atmospheric pollution. In addition, it would allow us to locate future truckstops closer to populated areas.”

Dave McClure, marketing director for Petro, says his company is willing to explore truckstop electrification, if asked. “We need economic incentive before we move forward. It’s been a Catch 22. We’ve been waiting for the demand; they’ve been waiting for the infrastructure.”

Truckstop electrification won’t happen overnight, and costs and electrical standardization must be determined. However, “it’s not rocket science,” says Rick Tempchin, director of energy efficiency policy for the Edison Electric Institute, which represents 80 percent of the utilities throughout the United States. “Truckstop electrification is just a new application for a proven service. The challenge is economically and safely getting the power out to the parking spaces and determining a mechanism to recover costs. Will truckstops charge a flat fee per night, or hourly?”

And, what about the cost of electricity? “Electric power is the cheapest form of energy for running on-board systems. A trucker would use pennies per night,” says Tempchin. “Remember, most of the power would be used during off-peak hours, which is usually significantly less than during the day. The bigger cost is putting in service equipment, but that one-time cost can be amortized over several years. Bottom line, we feel truckstops could offer electricity as an expensive service and make a nice margin. The best part is everybody wins; truckers and fleets pay less than it would cost for idling, and the truckstop has a new revenue source.”

Before truckstop electrification takes place industry-wide, Tempchin believes truckstops will walk before they run. “And that makes sense,” he says. “On the front end, truckstops shouldn’t have a philosophy that ‘we’ll build it and they’ll come.’ Start slowly and work with drivers and fleets,” he advises. “As demand grows, grow with it. There are ways to offer a limited number of electrical outlets to your customers. You can work with a licensed electrical contractor, for example, and branch electricity from the same service used for light stanchions, signage and outbuildings. Just make it simple for your customers to access the power.”