Emerging Technologies Hold Promise for Decarbonizing Port Operations

March 31, 2022

Authored by Erik BrewerPort facilities in the United States have been under intense focus recently. While concerns over economy-wide supply chain disruptions garner a lot of attention, there is also a growing understanding of the immense impact that port facilities and operations have on GHG emissions and local pollution.

Goods movement activities at coastal and inland ports across the United States rely predominately on diesel-fueled, heavy-duty vehicles. These activities emit a large amount of GHG, criteria pollutants, and toxic air contaminants, all of which significantly impact nearby communities. Criteria pollutants and toxic air contaminants have well-documented impacts to public health while GHG emissions from ports can circle back to affect near-port communities via sea level rise and increased coastal inundation. Many near-port communities are historically disenfranchised neighborhoods, exacerbating these environmental hazards. Reducing emissions from port facilities only becomes more pressing as the economy increasingly relies on international shipping.

The federal government is wisely seeking to find solutions to these challenges while developing port infrastructure in a smart, forward-looking manner. To that end, the recently-passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act included $17 billion of investment in port infrastructure, much of which includes electrification projects and zero-emission technologies as eligible expenses.

As is often the case, great challenges create opportunities. Zero-emission off-road port equipment is not commercially available today, and demonstrations of zero-emission vehicles like drayage trucks are in their early stages. The development, demonstration, and deployment of zero-emission port vehicles and equipment would represent major steps forward in emissions-free possibilities for ports.

CTE has been tackling the challenges to port electrification via the Electric Top Loader (ETL) project, funded by the California Air Resources Board. Through this project, CTE is working with project partners to develop and demonstrate a zero-emission Hyster 1150-CH series top loader for use in goods movement activities at ports.Successfully realizing zero-emission power solutions for goods movement equipment, like ETLs, is a substantial challenge. Operational and technical limitations obstruct the electrification of equipment such as container handlers, rubber tired gantry cranes, forklifts, and yard tractors. These challenges include:

  • The extended operational duty cycles between refueling and the energy consumption of these large equipment types require a considerable amount of energy be stored on board the equipment.
  • The highly demanding and varied duty cycles in these operations make refueling time a critical factor in cost of ownership for the operator.
  • Terminal space at ports is extremely valuable, and layouts and designs of storage and operations are often adjusted to adapt to the current needs.
  • Infrastructure is not readily available to support deployment of zero-emission cargo handling equipment, including the electrical grid capacity to provide energy and the establishment of hydrogen infrastructure required for refueling.

To begin addressing these hurdles in the ETL project, CTE and the project team aim to demonstrate a number of technological innovations: 1) electrification of hydro-mechanical powertrains, 2) delivery of the electric power and energy with a hydrogen fuel cell engine, and 3) wireless charging of on-board battery.

The electric top loader will feature two forms of range extension: wireless (inductive) charging and hydrogen fuel cell engines.In the proposed vehicle configuration, the primary energy source is the battery. It delivers peak power demands without having to oversize the fuel cell. The fuel cell functions as a range extender, or an on-board battery charger, allowing longer vehicle operation by topping off the battery during periods of minimum energy demand. Fuel cells convert the energy stored in hydrogen into direct-current (DC) electricity. With this extra battery energy stored as hydrogen and the relatively short refueling time for hydrogen, vehicle range and refueling times can be similar to those for an equivalent combustion engine vehicle.

A wireless charging system will also be integrated into the vehicle. WAVE's wireless charging system overcomes battery limitations in electric vehicles by delivering energy inductively to stationary vehicles using electrical infrastructure embedded in the roadway and vehicle-mounted receiver units. The wireless charger will further enable the vehicle to balance electric utility demand with hydrogen consumption to operate the top loader at a high level of efficiency. The charger will be used during operator break times and shift changes to maximize the vehicle's productivity. In addition, this configuration provides the unique opportunity to develop, demonstrate, and compare the efficiency and effectiveness of the two zero-emission range extension technologies.

There is still a long road ahead until we achieve widespread commercialization of zero-emission port vehicles and equipment. But we must embark on the effort to develop and modernize our port facilities using zero-emission technology so that we do not perpetuate the environmental, health, and social wrongs of the past. New and expanded federal programs now exist for this purpose. Data collected from early projects like the CARB ETL project will provide valuable, application-specific demand profiles and will support technical viability and economic potential assessments for other port electrification projects. The foundations are laid to turn these challenges into great opportunities, and CTE is ready to continue its work in this emerging zero-emission market.

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