Biden’s plans to electrify trucking face harsh reality in the desert

By Mike Lee | 04/30/2024 06:37 AM EDT

A charging station for electric trucks can require as much power as the Empire State Building. That’s hard to build in remote areas of the Southwest.

A semitruck drives on Interstate 80 past spinning wind turbines.

A semitruck drives on Interstate 80 past spinning wind turbines April 24, 2001, at the Foote Creek Rim wind project in Carbon County, Wyoming. Michael Smith/Newsmakers/AFP via Getty Images

Lordsburg, New Mexico, has two truck stops, a small downtown and a population that’s been dwindling since the local smelter shut down in the 1990s.

But if the Biden administration’s efforts to electrify the trucking industry come to fruition, the small town near the New Mexico-Arizona state line could be reborn as a critical way station for green transportation.

A California-based startup, TeraWatt Infrastructure, recently got $63 million in federal funds to build two electric truck charging stations in New Mexico, including one in Lordsburg. Another company, MaxxEnergy, is planning a fueling station for hydrogen-powered trucks in Lordsburg, using electricity from a proposed solar farm.


The projects are part of a scramble for both real estate and new sources of electricity along critical freight routes in the Southwest.

The Biden administration is helping to bankroll the effort, using parts of $2.5 billion set aside for the construction of new charging stations. The money comes from the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law and the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act.

If successful, the push could help transform America’s trucking fleet from one that runs on planet-warming diesel to one powered by cleaner forms of energy.

But creating a corridor for green trucking is easier said than done.

A single charging plaza may need as much power as the Empire State Building, according to TeraWatt. Adding to the challenge is the limited range of today’s electric trucks, which means a string of charging stations are necessary to keep them running.

Then there’s the landscape itself. Much of the southwestern United States is remote desert — making it difficult to connect power-hungry charging stations to the grid.

“When we’re out looking for sites, sites that have power are held on sort of a higher pedestal because they make it easier and faster for us to go to market,” said Patrick MacDonald-King, CEO of Greenlane, a charging company started by Daimler Trucking, NextEra Energy and BlackRock.

“Every site is a bit of a unicorn.”

Greenlane plans to build stations about every 75 miles between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, Nevada. TeraWatt plans to space its chargers roughly 150 miles apart between Los Angeles and El Paso, Texas.

While Lordsburg is more than 400 miles from the California state line, it’s on the interstate highway leading from Los Angeles to El Paso. That makes it and other small towns valuable as the industry expands — they could offer an oasis of infrastructure in the often-desolate stretches between California and Texas.

The need for these stations is paramount given the outsize influence nearby California has on how freight moves across the United States — both in terms of policy and logistics.

California has imposed strict regulations on the trucking industry that are designed to phase out sales of most new diesel-powered trucks in the state by 2035. Eleven other states have adopted California’s regulation, and the Biden administration has taken similar steps that will boost the number of emissions-free trucks.

At the same time, California is home to one of the largest import complexes in the country. About 30 percent of the country’s cargo container traffic — everything from shoes to furniture — comes through the twin ports of Long Beach and LA.

It's for these reasons the Biden’s administration’s plan for green trucking flows through California. The blueprint calls for phasing in the charging network, starting with LA and other freight hubs, then building charging corridors that connect the hubs to the rest of the highway network.

That has led the industry to put a premium on charging sites in and around LA, and also on routes connecting California to the rest of the country — including far-flung towns such as Lordsburg.

'Like putting a Costco in a parking space'

Long-haul charging requires large amounts of power in remote areas along highways and truck routes, said Richard Fioravanti, an engineer at Quanta Technology who works with utility companies on charging issues.

“For some of these big chargers, it's like putting a Costco in a parking space. And then putting 10 parking spaces together,” he said.

That’s not an insurmountable problem — tech companies and cyber-currency operations have built data centers that draw huge amounts of power.

But the trucking industry, with its demanding schedules and tight profit margins, will have to get used to working with utility companies and state regulators who can take years to plan projects.

“They're not used to going to the utility and saying, ‘Hey, here's our schedule of what we're going to do,‘” Fioravanti said.

There are other obstacles, too.

In rural areas, utility companies may have to upgrade their transmission systems and build miles of distribution lines to reach the new charging stations. That gets complicated, particularly if the new lines have to cross railroads, highways or private property.

“All those things can affect the cost,” said Alaric Babej, who coordinates the electric vehicle industry for PNM, the electric utility that serves southern and western New Mexico.

To deal with the challenges, charging companies are using a mix of old-fashioned patience and cutting-edge technology.

The companies say they expect to phase in their operations over several years, so they have time to build support and solve logistical hurdles with power lines. They also expect to phase in their power use, so they won’t need to pay for massive electric loads in their first few years.

“So from day one, you're not building the full amount of power at the site, you're not requesting that from the utility, you scale up over time as fleet demand increases,” said Sam Vercellotti, a senior policy manager at TeraWatt.

Companies are planning a variety of ways to find power for the new stations, including generating their own solar or power, or even portable batteries or generators in the short term.

WattEV, which got federal funds this year to build several charging stations in California, is planning to build solar generation. But it’s also considering other temporary options including gas-powered generators, CEO Salim Youssefzadeh said in an interview.

“It's just a matter of timing and seeing if there’s ways that you can come up with intermediate solutions,” he said.

One company — Greenlane — is taking a data-driven approach, using information from Daimler and from Uber freight, to determine the best locations for its stations.

It also has technology that can tell which utility companies serve a piece of land, and whether they can provide adequate power.

Texas eyes more charging stations

The Biden administration’s push to electrify the U.S. trucking fleet has received a mixed reaction from state and local officials.

When TeraWatt submitted its application for federal charging funds, it was sponsored by the New Mexico Department of Transportation and included letters of support from PNM and from Hidalgo County, which includes Lordsburg.

Texas, which is reliably conservative, created aninteragency group last year to study the best way to develop truck charging. The state Commission on Environmental Quality is using $86.8 million from the Volkswagen emissions settlement to fund the replacement of diesel-powered trucks and buses and build charging infrastructure.

In Arizona, however, the Republican-controlled Corporation Commission rolled back the state’s incentives for renewable energy this year and turned down a utility company’s plans last year to fund a charging program for electric cars.

The state commission hasn’t directly addressed electric truck charging, but Diane Brown, who follows utility issues for the Arizona Public Interest Research Group, was optimistic the electric industry would find a way to bring power to new truck charging stations.

“The commission typically has been favorable to proceeding to ensure necessary growth is accommodated,” she said.

Opposition to truck charging will start to fade as the industry grows, said Trisha Dello Iacono, head of policy at the clean energy nonprofit CALSTART.

“States are starting to get it, and it’s transcending party lines,” Dello Iacono said.

Local officials, too, are warming to the idea.

Tisha Green, the county manager in Hidalgo County, which includes Lordsburg, said there’s been backlash from residents about the new development. But she gave TeraWatt high marks for being proactive about local concerns.

And she said the charging station has the potential to create construction jobs and bolster the area’s economy.

“Lordsburg been dying for a really long time," she said. "We need this.”