In mid-February, the EU Commission is due to publish a law proposal essential to the energy transition, the next CO2 standards for heavy-duty vehicles (HDVs). The proposal is expected to accelerate the emissions reduction of fossil-fueled trucks and, in parallel, incentivise sales of battery electric trucks.

While it’s widely recognised that electrifying freight kilometres is key to cutting the EU’s transport emissions, some stakeholders raised doubts about whether power grids will be able to manage the charging of electric trucks.

The short answer is yes, but accelerated grid connections and smart charging will be key to integrating these new EVs into our power grids and keeping costs in check.

“Smart” or “managed” charging means charging EV batteries, for instance, those of electric truck fleets at a rest stop or depot, when costs for electricity are lowest, i.e. renewables are available and there’s spare capacity on the grid. That way, smart charging reduces carbon emissions and the need for costly upgrades of the power grid. 

Ambitious CO2 targets are key

Setting an ambitious target for zero-emission trucks in the upcoming proposal is crucial to accelerate urgently needed reductions of freight emissions.

Trucks — ranging from urban delivery trucks to long-haul tractor-trailers — represent less than 2% of Europe’s vehicles but cause around 25% of emissions from road transport, and freight volumes are growing. 

While current e-truck numbers are still low in Europe, they will grow significantly through 2030, according to announcements by governments and truckmakers.

Recent research shows that by 2035, most electric trucks across short, regional and long-haul segments will likely be competitive to Diesel trucks in cost, but also range, payload and driving times. Energy regulators and grid operators need to anticipate these growing e-truck numbers and proactively plan for trucks’ grid use. 

Plan for it now

To optimally integrate electric trucks into power grids, governments need to start planning now. This includes matching the needs of hauliers in terms of charging demand and locations, with the grid’s current and planned hosting capacity, e.g. as outlined in national grid investment plans.

The energy demand for battery-electric trucks in Germany is estimated at 13 TWh in 2030, or the equivalent of about 1% of the country’s total electricity produced. This does not necessarily imply increasing peak demand by the same amount. Some investments in grid reinforcements will be needed, but how much will fundamentally depend on how truck charging is optimised.

The analysis available so far suggests that additional peak demand from electric truck charging can be reduced by 50-80% if charging is optimised, depending on use cases and favourable regulatory conditions, e.g. the availability of time-of-use tariffs.  

The majority of electric trucks needed for urban and regional use can charge at the depot, where smart charging overnight or mid-day (e.g. to absorb wind or solar energy) provides great potential to save costs.

Long-haul trucks, operating long-distance trips across the EU, will rely more on public charging. Their mandatory resting time of at least nine hours offers plenty of flexibility to exploit readily available grid capacity as well as cheaper energy.

Smart charging, based on time-of-use tariffs, helps truck operators automatically adjust their charging to constantly changing cost of electricity. It is also possible to optimise for shorter charging periods, for example during their minimum 45-minute mandatory break at highway truck rest areas.

A growing range of smart charging services is already available for passenger EVs across Europe offering tariffs and software that helps fleet owners to optimise charging to their schedule.

Energy market reforms just opened for consultation, offer an important opportunity to advance the availability of time-of-use pricing of energy and networks, and the build-out of a market for smart charging services.

Key arbiters in preparing the power grids are Europe’s transmission and distribution grid operators who have a tremendous opportunity in e-mobility to optimise grid efficiency.  

Make truck charging a priority

EU decision makers can help truck operators transition to electric by quickly finalising two more legislations that will help deploy the charging infrastructure in the next decade.

The Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Regulation, currently in final negotiations, will support Member States in building the necessary public charging framework for trucks along Europe’s highways.

The Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (also in negotiations) sets requirements to upgrade new and existing buildings with EV charging infrastructure and shouldn’t miss the opportunity to advance upgrades at logistics depots, too.

The EU won’t be able to reach its climate goals without drastically cutting freight emissions. Direct electrification via battery trucks is now the widely recognised way forward, offering the most energy-efficient option to decarbonise road transport.

But if charging is not planned for proactively, and managed smartly, the additional electricity demand will lead to higher costs for consumers, the power system, and the environment.

It may also eventually slow down the clean energy transition, or pave the way to more inefficient alternatives such as hydrogen.

Accelerating EV sales is not enough — we now need to ensure EV’s efficient integration into our power system, and use the existing infrastructure more efficiently before expanding it, through smart planning and charging.

The original version of this article appeared in Euractiv.