California is already diving into electric-vehicle charging infrastructure in a big way, with nearly a billion dollars of utility funding going toward EV chargers at workplaces, apartment buildings and public venues. But the state is also eager to electrify the trucks, forklifts and other heavy-duty vehicles that cause pollution — which is often concentrated in low-income and disadvantaged communities.

Last week, major truck manufacturer Volvo unveiled more details on a Southern California pilot project meant to test how electric trucks could fit into these goals. Funded with a $44.8 million state grant and matching funds from Volvo and 16 partners, including freight companies DHE and NFI, Volvo intends to deploy 23 electric trucks at warehouses and logistics centers across the region. 

Volvo has jumped into electric trucks in a big way. This year it launched its first medium-duty EV, the Volvo FL Electric, with plans to start selling it for urban distribution operations in Europe next year. And in September Volvo announced plans to bring electric trucks to North America by 2020, along with plans for testing them in California. 

The Low Impact Green Heavy Transport Solutions project is one of 11 projects receiving grant funding from the California Air Resources Board to electrify work vehicles. It's the largest of the projects targeted at on-road vehicles, rather than port or rail yard vehicles. It’s part of California Climate Investments, which directs the state’s cap-and-trade funding to projects that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, strengthen the economy and improve public health and the environment, particularly in disadvantaged communities.

According to Volvo spokesperson Brandon Borgna, it’s the first pilot project he’s aware of that’s focused not just on keeping electric trucks charged and running, but also on a broader set of imperatives such as integrating on-site solar into reducing local air pollution and supporting better integration of clean energy into the power grid. “An end-to-end electrification program — that’s really what it’s all about.” 

The project will also bring in EV charging technology startup Greenlots to network and manage the charging systems to be deployed, which will include 150-kilowatt fast chargers, as well as Level 2 chargers and charging systems for electric forklifts. ABB and other charging station manufacturers will provide the equipment, and Burns & McDonnell will engineer and install the stations.    

Brett Hauser, CEO of Greenlots, described some of the key capabilities that will be tested in the project. “One is the basic network management, the ability to manage the charging stations themselves as a network,” he said — something Greenlots’ Sky software platform has been doing for utility partners in British ColumbiaHawaiiCaliforniaOhio and Washington state.

The new project will include the first real-world implementation of the Society of Automotive Engineers' J3068 charging standard for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, he noted. 

“The next piece is EV fleet optimization,” said Hauser. Greenlots is constantly tracking and modulating charging throughout the day to reduce the costs of electricity to the fleet owner, based on both the price of electricity and on the imperative of avoiding the excess demand charges that can happen when too many vehicles are charging at once. But it’s also working with local utilities to manage charging in a way that helps them reduce costs and avoid expensive infrastructure upgrades.

Integrating on-site solar PV, demand management and energy storage is also part of the project’s plan, he noted. “Volvo Trucks has taken a stance — they’re going to be thought leaders in looking at medium- and heavy-duty vehicles and how they’re going to reduce carbon emissions, but also serve as a flexible resource for the grid. This is really the first time that a lot of these things are being done together.” 

Finally, Greenlots and Volvo will be working with the project’s partners on fleet optimization, or managing the routing and scheduling of vehicles to reduce charging costs and pollution impacts. The electric trucks being deployed to Southern California will be concentrating on daily deliveries within the region, meaning that they won’t require the massive range that Tesla is promising from its electric Semi truck

“Where electric vehicles will have the greatest value is in heavy urbanized transport,” Volvo’s Borgna said. Besides being the world’s second-biggest truck manufacturer, Volvo is also the world’s largest maker of electric buses, added Borgna — a market that could also benefit from Volvo's work in Southern California.