Electrifying commercial vehicles is a critical part of reducing emissions, so it’s frustrating that the pace of fleet electrification has been so slow. Viable commercial EVs have been around for years, but fleet operators insisted on conducting years-long pilots to prove their reliability. Now that phase is over, and companies are starting to place substantial orders, but they’re running into another hurdle—charging infrastructure needs to be built out, and managing it is a complex affair.
California-based WattEV is building a network of charging hubs designed for electric trucks, incorporating solar generation, battery storage and active energy management. These megawatt charging sites will be open to all fleet operators. However, the company also has a more ambitious strategy—by 2030, it hopes to have a gigawatt of charging capacity installed to support 12,000 of its own trucks, part of a Truck-as-a-Service business model that it will offer to fleet operators.
The first piece of the puzzle, which is now under construction, is the Bakersfield Electric Truck Stop, a 110-acre, 40-megawatt, solar-powered, electric-only public truck stop. Strategically positioned between the Central Valley and the Los Angeles megalopolis, the charging hub will feature a solar microgrid with battery storage, plus grid energy from PG&E.
Charged spoke with Salim Youssefzadeh, WattEV’s CEO, about the company’s vision of a profitable zero-emission transport fleet.
Charged: You’ve broken ground on your first facility. Is it all designed and planned out? Have you chosen the vendors for the charging stations and the other hardware?
Salim: Yeah. We’ve started construction, and are looking forward to having the site operational by the end of 2022.
On the solar field, we were originally looking at single-axis tracking, but as we dug into it, we saw that it becomes very costly. We started looking at alternative designs, and came across an Australian company called 5B that has a containerized solution all pre-wired. The panels are fixed, but they’re on east-west inclinations. It comes in a container, and pulls out like an accordion, and you actually have a higher density of solar panels in a smaller area. So, we are able to get to 40 megawatts, and our annual energy production is equivalent to [what it would be if we used] single-axis tracking, but our cost is significantly lower.
On the battery storage side, we plan to use [energy storage provider] Stem’s solution, with Tesla Megapacks with about 4.5 megawatt-hours of capacity. Long term, as our trucks go through their useful life cycles, we plan to demonstrate their viability as second-life battery storage in future phases.
For the EV chargers, we’re going to be using CCS dispensers from [power supply manufacturer] Phihong originally. But we evaluated all of the manufacturers that produce EVSE, and we quickly realized that a lot of them don’t have the true dynamic charging capability that we are looking for. And many of them are far from having MCS [the Megawatt Charging System, a new high-power standard for charging heavy-duty EVs]. So even though we’re installing Phihong chargers for some of the initial charge dispensers up to 360 kilowatts, we’re also, in parallel, designing our own true dynamic charging equipment.
Charged: You’re going to develop your own proprietary charging station?
Salim: Correct. We’ve already submitted patents, and are about to start designing it and building out prototypes. The one that we are designing will have 4 MCS connectors and 16 CCS connectors in a single containerized unit of 4 megawatts. Because of its unique switching capability, it can dynamically allocate power to each of those dispensers as needed, and depending on the size of the project, you can add a number of containers. For our Bakersfield facility, we’re going with 16 MCS connectors and 64 240 kW CCS connectors, so there’ll be 4 of our containerized solutions going in there.
Charged: So, depending on what kind of truck pulls in, some can charge with CCS and some can use MCS.
Salim: Correct. The idea would be that the CCS ones would allow for overnight charging and the MCS would be for rapid opportunity charging. We hope to install it toward the end of 2023.
Charged: I understand that the physical layout of truck charging sites is very important. I’m guessing that you consulted with some trucking industry experts about how to design the parking, the charging stalls, etc.
Salim: Absolutely. Yeah, it was a mix of going to truckers, and we had sent this over to Volvo and Daimler to comment on. But we’re also looking at the routing of the cabling, because that also becomes fairly costly, so this was designed considering the trucker’s routes as they go in and out of the charging areas, as well as how to optimize for the shortest cable runs.
Charged: Looking at the preliminary rendering, I don’t see any restaurant, store or restrooms.
Salim: That’s a great point, and the idea is to add those at a later stage. We wanted to keep the first stage fairly simple so that we can get it up and running as soon as possible. As we develop our site and go through the remaining phases, we will build out restaurants, but we’re also looking into food trucks for that first phase.
Charged: Tell us about your Truck-as-a-Service business model.
Salim: We started WattEV with the intent of becoming the main provider of public charging for electric trucks, but we quickly realized that it wasn’t enough for us to just build the infrastructure and expect the demand to pick up naturally. That’s when we really started looking into the trucks, the capabilities that they have and the direction that they’re going in. The trucks that we have ordered for delivery in Q4 2022 have a two-to-three-hour charge time and a 250-mile range. This is far from the range that most diesel trucks offer, and a two-to-three-hour charge time is unacceptable to most drivers. In order to overcome these constraints, we came up with a “Pony Express” model where a truck can be picked up at one depot and swapped at another for a fully charged truck. This is ideal in the middle-mile sector, since most routes fall within the range of the vehicle, and we can strategically place our vehicles at our depots to allow for a charged truck to be available when needed.
Identifying the routes for the Pony Express model is an interim problem we need to solve in order to maximize utilization of the assets and get the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) at par with diesel. Once trucks with MCS charging become available, this becomes less of an issue since the charge time is drastically reduced to about 30 minutes.
By the end of 2022, we will have our sites in Bakersfield, Gardena and San Bernardino operational, along with 50 Volvo VNR Electric trucks. These three sites fall into a 180-mile radius from each other, and are on major trucking corridors that are ideal for running our TaaS model. When a driver [drives] the route, they can just drop off the truck, pick up a fully-charged truck and continue on their route.
Charged: So it’s like back in the old stagecoach days, when they would exchange tired horses for fresh ones at every stop?
Charged: What trucks do you have on order?
Salim: We have 50 phase-two Volvo trucks on order, [which are] expected to be delivered at the end of 2022. We have also reserved 50 Tesla Semis, which we hope to get sometime in 2024. We know that out of the gate, Tesla will have MCS capability, whereas the Volvos will be using CCS. We plan to limit the number of CCS trucks we have on order for mainly getting operational, and to push the market towards MCS with all the OEMs.
Charged: So, Tesla is going to have MCS capability on the Semi.
Salim:That’s what they’re advertising. They are an active member in CharIN [the organization responsible for standardization and development of MCS]. They were, for the most part, leading the development of the connector type. And I believe Tesla has installed a megawatt dispenser at their Nevada Gigafactory, which is currently being used for testing with one of the trucks.
Charged: So, you’ve got the solar, you’ve got the storage, you’ve got the EVSE. You must have some sort of a software package that’s coordinating all that.
Salim: Absolutely. There is a fairly large amount of effort that goes into the energy management system and [calculating] how to best optimize between utility, solar and battery, so that we’re always using the most cost-effective and greenest source of energy. Our entire system is packaged with California-based energy management specialist Stem. They have a complete solution that they’re working on that’s able to take in all these inputs and give you an output using the most cost-effective solution.
With our product that we’re developing, the MCS and CCS combination, it works with a complex switching matrix where we have a 4 MW power source, and the system can switch between the different dispensers. For instance, we have 16 CCS dispensers and 4 MCS dispensers all tied to this one box, and that box will be able to switch and dynamically allocate the power to each of those dispensers as needed. This would all be software-controlled, and use the same standard protocols that are currently used for the charging equipment and the vehicles. We also have a lot of effort going towards development of the TaaS platform that manages everything from truck book to routes and charging.
Charged: You’re going to have your own trucks under your TaaS model, but is this charging hub also going to be available to other fleets?
Salim: Absolutely. All of our stations are going to be publicly accessible.
Charged: As far as other fleets’ trucks coming in and paying to charge, I think a lot of people expect that to be a pretty low-margin business. Would you say that your TaaS model is a way to make the numbers work out better?
Salim: Yeah, absolutely. The Truck-as-a-Service model is an all-inclusive package that includes the vehicle, the charging, and maintenance, all at a price that’s on par with diesel. And because we’re able to essentially control our own energy source and how the assets are optimized, we can guarantee the lowest price possible and increase the utilization of our own fleet.
The transportation industry is predominantly operated by contractors or owner-operators with one to five trucks in their fleets. And even with all the mandates and initiatives going towards zero-emission transport, there’s quite a few barriers that are preventing owner-operators from getting into zero-emission transport. The price of some of these electric Class 8 trucks is almost three times that of a new diesel. And you couple that with unknown range, insurance and maintenance, and there’s plenty of reasons why these drivers aren’t going to the dealerships and buying these trucks right away. Our solution is supposed to help remove a lot of those barriers, and make it more accessible and affordable to anybody that wants to get into zero-emission operations.
Charged: So, your customer base could include the truck drivers themselves, the owner-operators?
Salim: Yes. And we’re already in discussions with a lot of shippers that have sustainability goals. We pitch them on what we’re doing and show that they can meet their sustainability goals with no out-of-pocket capital from themselves. That allows us to get contracts for these loads and then we can offtake those to different drivers.
Charged: The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are in the news quite a lot these days. Are you actively working with them as an organization?
Salim: Absolutely. One of our upcoming sites that we’re discussing is a facility that’s very close to the port. And our Gardena location as well is within five or ten miles from the port itself. We’re in active discussions with them on the initiatives that they have. For instance, [the ports are planning to impose] a fee of $10 per TEU [20-foot equivalent unit] for anybody that’s not operating green. When a driver goes into the port to pick up a vehicle, they’d be paying an additional $10 TEU fee if they’re not operating with a zero-emission truck. But we actually released a white paper on a different solution that we had in mind that incentivizes operators to drive using zero emissions, so it looks at it from an alternative perspective where rather than penalizing them, we reward them for using zero-emission vehicles.
Charged: We’re believers in battery-electric trucks, and I suspect you are too. But we hear a lot of talk about hydrogen, and a lot of elected officials sound pretty keen on it. What would you say to somebody that says hydrogen is a better solution?
Salim: That’s a great question. We initially started looking at hydrogen, and we were looking at creating green hydrogen through the use of electrolysis, which is a lot more costly than the traditional way of [generating] hydrogen, which is using SMR, steam methane reforming. We actually went down the road of seeing what it would cost to build a solar field, and then power an electrolyzer using solar to create green hydrogen. We started looking into the cost of the equipment and the storage and transportation, and what we quickly realized is that, in order to transport green hydrogen, you have to liquefy it and get it down to very cold temperatures, which becomes very costly. And the energy density that you have is still nowhere near as effective as that of going directly to a battery. A lot of your loss is actually through heat dissipation. So, to those that are looking at hydrogen as a source, it’s been said that it’s [been] the fuel of the future for the past 20 years. It probably will continue to be so.
But at the initial stage, zero emissions using battery-electric is definitely the way to go, because you can get on the road right now using [existing] vehicles, and through the use of your network and how you place your infrastructure, you can increase the range of those battery-electric vehicles much more effectively than if you were to use hydrogen and build out stations everywhere.
Charged: The engineering or scientific case for battery-electric seems so obvious. Why do politicians seem so receptive to pitches for hydrogen?
Salim: I think they’re looking into it because they don’t want there to just be one winner, right? If you look at the entire ecosystem, having competition in different solutions is definitely the way to go to evaluate different technologies. And I’m sure eventually there will be hydrogen trucks that have long range, but it’ll take quite some time.
And if you look at some of these OEMs that are going in that direction, they’re saying that hydrogen is effective because you can reduce the weight and you can essentially increase the charge time, so you can fuel up faster than with a battery-electric truck. But with the way technology’s going with MCS, you’re increasing the battery density, so you can store more energy in that same weight of battery. And then with the charge time, you can bring it down to 30 to 45 minutes, which is close to diesel. But in terms of the entire ecosystem, I think it’s healthy to have many different technologies and solutions in the works at any given time.
Charged: As far as the trucks, you’re buying Tesla and Volvo and maybe Daimler. Are there any other OEMs out there that you see as promising?
Salim: Sure. We’ve looked at all of them, but our long-term [goal] is to push the entire market towards MCS. The initial fleet that we ordered from Volvo is using CCS, but the idea is that, once we get delivery of those and put those into operation and really debug our software and infrastructure, then we push them towards development of MCS-capable vehicles.
Charged:What are the biggest technical challenges to change over from CCS to MCS?
Salim: I think the biggest factor for them is having enough of a market demand to do that. Right now, essentially battery chemistry needs to change to what MCS requires. A lot of the OEMs don’t actually manufacture their own packs, they buy them from third parties, so they need to make sure that the voltage requirements meet the specs of MCS, as well as the battery density and the spacing between the cells. Then on top of that, you have to design for the cooling aspects, the connector is different, and the battery management system may be different. All of these changes contribute to cost. For these OEMs to make that change, they need to have a big enough demand from a large player to really start going in that direction and putting in their own CapEx to convert to MCS.
Charged: So, the long-term plan is to use your first three charging hubs as models for lots more all around the country?
Salim: Yes. We’re very excited in getting these three sites operational and making zero-emission transport accessible and affordable to a lot of owner-operators that are looking to get into this. And for the shippers, we’re allowing them to meet their sustainability goals much faster than if they were to do it on their own with their own CapEx.
These three sites are the first of many that will be coming online within the next few years. Our vision is well beyond California to go nationwide as well. With Bakersfield we’re testing a lot of different technologies to really show that we can bring down the cost of the infrastructure significantly through solar and battery storage, as well as our own charging design. If we can demonstrate that there, then we can easily duplicate it anywhere else.