Do electric trucks offer substantial emissions savings?

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Updated Nov 29, 2018
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The Tesla Semi was introduced in November 2017.

This article is part of a longer series on the electric truck market. Click here to see all entries in the Power Shift series.

The promised emissions savings of electric power compared to diesel power is more complex than simply comparing the output from the two technologies. That’s because much electrical power generation relies on coal and other fossil fuels, says MIT’s Jing Li.

“There are renewables, but they’re very intermittent,” she says of powerplants that rely on sources such as hydroelectric, wind, solar and nuclear.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 29 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States comes from power plants, while GHG from all transportation forms accounts for 27 percent. Nearly 70 percent of electricity “comes from burning fossil fuels, mostly coal and natural gas,” says EPA.

“If a place has predominantly fossil fuels generating electricity, then we need to look at any claimed environmental benefits from a carbon and other emissions point of view,” says Li. However, if a truck recharges at a facility that derives its power from a renewable source, there likely would be emissions savings, she says.

A further distinction is that while some of the power generated for the batteries to run Tesla and Thor trucks comes from fossil fuel, that’s not the case for Nikola’s hydrogen-powered rigs. Founder Trevor Milton touts them as reliably cleaner “end to end” than vehicles that rely on the grid for power.

Though hydrogen “does not naturally exist in large quantities on Earth,” says EPA, it’s “the most abundant element in the universe” and can be derived from fossil fuels, water, methane and natural gas. Since it can be manufactured, says Milton, there should be little concern about its supply.

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