Plugged In

Max Kvidera | August 07, 2011

In an era of idling prohibitions and $4 fuel, the power switch is back on for truck stop electrification.

Given a choice between a truck stop that offers shore power and one that doesn’t, owner-operator Michael Ben-Dror leaves no doubt where his loyalties lie: “I will choose the one that does.”

Ben-Dror, leased to Anderson Trucking Service, doesn’t face that choice most of the time. At mid-year, a U.S. Department of Energy database listed just 40 truck stops that offer electrical hookups, although more installations are expected this year and the next.

Yet for the first time since the former IdleAire abruptly closed its doors in early 2010, providers of truck stop electrification (TSE) are jumping into the market. At least five companies are negotiating with truck stops and building new sites. Though truckers and truck stop operators have been cautious about embracing the new technology, TSE is expected to spread as state and local governments impose more idling restrictions and diesel fuel prices remain high and volatile.

TSE company reps are fond of noting the chicken-or-egg dilemma facing the industry: Must the electric network expand before more usage will occur? Or must operator demand first increase before there is more infrastructure development? For now, federal grants aimed at reducing carbon emissions and idling remain the primary funding source for expanding the infrastructure.

Jim Bianco, owner of TSE provider CabAire, acknowledges his company is in the business because of federal and state funding. For now, he says, “We probably will not go out on our own.”

Other TSE providers say the key to stimulating truck stop operator investment will be greater demand from owner-operators and fleets willing to pay $1 or $2 an hour for service. Yet carriers are reluctant to commit to retrofits and new vehicles with on-board electric outlets or inverter/chargers unless a TSE infrastructure is in place to accommodate them, says Alan Bates, Shorepower Technologies director of marketing and strategic development. Only 20 percent to 30 percent of today’s trucks are equipped with outlets.

“I think owner-operators who are paying their own expenses are going to be your early adopters,” says Ken Neal, president of EnviroDock, a TSE service provider with three installations.

“Items 1 through 5 are trucker education,” says Jonathan Overly, executive director of the East Tennessee Clean Cities Coalition. “If we drive the benefits to the truckers and they speak to the travel plazas about putting in the equipment,” he contends, plaza operators will listen.

Those truck stop operators also need education, says Dave Orton, marketing manager at Cascade Sierra Solutions, an Oregon-based non-profit involved in reducing diesel emissions and saving fuel. “The technology is viable and will expand … but there’s been a half-step backward to overcome.”

A few years ago, the industry was more than three times its current size. The pioneering Knoxville, Tenn.-based IdleAire operated thousands of stations at 130 sites in 34 states. Its invention of providing not just electricity, but in-cab hot and cold air and telecommunications services won awards and attracted devoted users.

Within a few years of its founding, though, its labor-heavy operation and haphazard site selection (some highway exits had three separate installations) led to large losses. The company declared bankruptcy in 2008. Bondholders ran IdleAire while seeking new owners, then closed the company in 2010. Later that year, new investors Convoy Solutions bought the intellectual property and assets, reopened more than 20 sites and shortened the name to IdleAir, hoping for a fresh start.

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