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Clean Power for a Buck an Hour

Posted: August 1, 2014 by Jim Park

At about four bucks an hour for the fuel alone to keep a big diesel idling these days, we’re an industry open to anti-idling alternatives.

On-board climate-control systems like diesel-fired heaters, auxiliary power systems, and battery-powered HVAC systems are gaining acceptance, but there can be significant barriers to wider adoption of the technology. Cost and weight are two. And the Holy Grail of on-board systems, reliable and sustainable cooling at reasonable cost, continues to elude us.

Though it’s a going concern south of the border, there is another alternative we have yet to see here in Canada: truckstop electrification. A ready supply of 110-volt AC power could run small space heaters, dehumidifiers, small appliances, and even portable room air conditioners. All we need is a place to plug in.

That was the premise of IdleAire, of Knoxville, Tenn., when it launched across the U.S. in late 2000.

But truckstops were slower to implement the system than initially targeted, and drivers haven’t taken to it in numbers large enough to drive sustainable expansion. Indeed, IdleAire announced recently that it was filing for Chapter 11 protection. 

The thing is, IdleAire took truckstop electrification to the extreme: a driver pulled into a parking space at a truckstop, hooked up an apparatus to the window, and got temperature-controlled air, along with TV and Internet connections, movies, educational programs, and electricity to run the microwave oven or coffeepot — all without idling.
It looked good on paper, but it was a terribly expensive set up. It cost about $1 million to install the paraphernalia at an average size travel center with approximately 65 parking spaces — about $15,000 per parking space. 

It’s been said before and it’s worth repeating in this context: keep it simple.
 

The Bare Necessities:

Enter Rome, N.Y.,’s Shorepower Tech­nologies, a spin-off from an engineering consulting group that was examining current off-board electrified truckstop parking offerings (like IdleAire). The company concluded that current infrastructure-intensive models don’t work, and decided to offer a more flexible product requiring much less infrastructure.

They may have finally hit upon a cost-effective plan to provide a convenient source of power to truckers parked overnight.

Shorepower Technologies uses a much simpler approach; a single well-protected steel pedestal installed between two or four parking spaces. Each post is wired for up to four users with 110-volt power outlets and connections for cable television and Internet. Depending on the size and scope of the installation, the cost could be as low as 10 percent of the price of an IdleAire installation, with its large overhead gantry and remote climate control system. 

“Each Shorepower connection comes in at a quarter of the cost of an ‘off board’ TSE [Truck Stop Electrification] parking space,” says the company’s chief operating officer Jeff Kim. “But that does not tell the whole story. Generally, our competitors [IdleAire] require a 75- to 100-parking-space minimum. We can do facilities with fewer than 25 parking spaces under certain circumstances. A small Shorepower facility can cost as little as $100,000 depending on site-specific issues, whereas an ‘off-board’ TSE facility can cost $1 million or more.”

At that price, maybe even Canadian truckstop operators would be interested.

As Shorepower was powering up three years ago, skeptics said there weren’t enough trucks on the road fitted with the necessary wiring and inverters to support a standalone system. Shorepower’s market research suggests around 20 percent of trucks now have shorepower capacity.

“That may not sound like a huge opportunity, but that’s still about 100,000 trucks [in the U.S.]” Kim says, “That number is increasing every year and should increase even more rapidly as we deploy more Shorepower facilities.”

And Kim is quick to point out that integrated on-board shorepower hook ups aren’t necessary for a driver to take advantage of a local source of 110-volt AC power. 
 
“Once you have power, the truck becomes a mini apartment. You can set up the vehicle with outlets and an inverter, or you can simply pass an extension cord through the door,” he says.

Truckers traditionally haven’t relied on sources of 110-volt power, because it isn’t readily available. Instead, over-the-road drivers have relied on AC/DC inverters to power small appliances, computers, TVs and the like. If a broad enough network of powered parking spaces existed, truckers could be inclined to change their ways — not that inverters would ever go away.

The more complex OE and aftermarket shore-power hook-up kits include a cab-mounted AC/DC inverter and wiring harness. They feature voltage regulators, thermal protection, etc., to protect the system and the truck from overloads and fires. Less expensive “portable” inverters are available to power low-wattage items like computers, etc., but they may not be resistant to overload. Some fleets restrict the use of such products because of the risk of fire.

With several truck makers now offering battery-powered on-board HVAC systems, a ready source of 110-volt power could reduce the dependency on batteries and allow the system to run indefinitely.

At its simplest, wired parking space offer drivers all the conveniences of home — provided they bring their own heaters. With cable TV and Internet connections, it becomes a sustainable and very inexpensive alternative to idling. Shorepower Technologies is currently offering the service for free at several of its installations, but says it will eventually be charging around a dollar an hour for the service.

The technology is there and the demand is there, but there remains the chicken-and-egg conundrum. Would more drivers use a 110-volt hook up were it more widely available? And would these installations be more widely available if more truckers were demanding them?
IdleAire faced a chicken-and-egg dilemma too. It said that a larger network and higher utilization were key to its success.

Truckstops and travel centers were reluctant to sign up because they weren’t sure the demand existed. Fleets and owner-operators didn’t want to rely on IdleAire because there were a limited number of locations, so the demand truckstops are looking for isn’t there. It’s a vicious cycle.

“I think for truckstops, there is a question of, ‘will drivers use it, how long is this going to be the type of system that they want, and for systems that take more space in the lot, can I part with so many spaces in order to put this equipment in?’” says Mindy Long, vice president of public affairs for the National Association of Truckstop/Travelstop Operators (NATSO).

The size of the IdleAire installations has been a stumbling block for some truckstops, especially those that already have limited real estate for truck parking. Jubitz Travel Center in Portland, Ore., never felt IdleAire was an option. About nine months ago, it signed a deal with Shorepower Technologies instead.

“In our case, where our parking’s very limited, the IdleAire required more space than we had available,” says Lee Pederson, fuel operations manager for Jubitz. He said driver acceptance and demand has been very good.
 

Innovative Business Model:

Kickstarted with an EPA grant to administer the program, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, The Climate Trust, Washington State Department of Ecology, and the Oregon Department of Energy contributed funding, loans, and business energy tax credits to get the program off the ground. 

“We’ve got several substantial investors looking at us right now, and if we can get that funding, we can begin national deployment,” says an enthusiastic Kim. “There are grants available in several states right now, but we don’t want to rely on them in the long term. To make this work, it has to be a self-sustaining business. The long-term model doesn’t rely on those grants, but the grant will be helpful in getting it off the ground.”

The five existing truckstop installations are in a revenue-sharing arrangement with Shorepower Technologies. The company paid the initial installation charges, and covers the monthly power bills and utility costs.

“There’s literally zero cost to the truckstop,” Kim says, “but we still share a small portion of the revenue stream with them.”

They also offer a model where the truckstop operator buys the equipment outright and pays Shorepower Tech­nologies a small maintenance and marketing fee. “We keep the system operational, they collect the majority of the hourly charges,” Kim claims.

No similar program exists in Canada, but Kim says they had discussions with National Resources Canada (NRCAN) several years ago. NRCAN and Transport Canada are once again exploring alternatives to heavy trucking idling, and truckstop electrification is in the discussion paper. How far it gets beyond discussion is anyone’s guess.

Looking Forward :

Research by Argonne National Laboratories for the U.S. Department of Energy found that technologies with hourly charges, such as IdleAire, are most cost-effective for companies that do not do a lot of idling. On-board technologies offer better payback for high idlers, Argonne claims.

One factor that could be a boon for Shorepower Technologies and other truckstop-based systems is anti-idling regulations. Several APU and cab-heater manufacturers now offer CARB-certified low-emissions models, keeping them in the California game a while longer.

NATSO’s Long says truckstop operators in California are showing a lot of interest in trucktop-based anti-idling systems because of the state Air Resources Board’s strict anti-idling regulations that went into effect earlier this year. She says other states are looking at adopting similar regulations.

Questions were asked in the early stages of Shorepower’s evolution about the actual CO2 reduction potential of the system, given that a truck running on-board 110-volt AC heating or cooling systems is still consuming electrical energy from some source. “Of course there are upstream emissions,” Kim acknowledges. But any source of grid-based power is preferable to idling a diesel engine for the same purpose.

“Even the worst coal burning electrical generation facility would produce fewer the emissions than an idling truck,” he says. “Even in the worst, worst case, we’re still way ahead in terms of GHG reduction.”

— with files from Deborah Lockridge
 

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