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Volvo to unplug with self-charging electric big rigs

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Volvo expects to begin U.S. production before the end of the decade on large electric transport trucks that charge themselves and emit only water vapor.

The heavy-hauling vehicles will use hydrogen fuel cells to produce their own electricity, giving them a range of more than 600 miles, the company said Monday. Greensboro-based Volvo Trucks North America already produces and sells traditional electric and diesel-powered big rigs in the U.S.

“We have been developing this technology for some years now, and it feels great to see the first trucks successfully running on the test track,” Roger Alm, president of Sweden-based parent company Volvo Trucks, said in an announcement Monday of the self-charging models.

Pilot programs for customers will begin within a few years, according to the company.

U.S. production and sales of the hydrogen-powered vehicles are expected to start “in the second part of this decade,” Volvo Trucks North America spokesman Fredrik Klevenfeldt confirmed to the Journal Monday.

All of Volvo’s large trucks sold in North America are assembled at the company’s New River Valley Plant in Dublin, Va., about 100 miles north of the Triad.

The company also operates a powertrain manufacturing facility in Hagerstown, Md.

Volvo’s existing VNR Electric truck has a range of 275 miles, a battery capacity of 565 kilowatts and can achieve an 80% charge in 90 minutes.

The company also makes large trucks powered by natural gas and biogas that reduce emissions by 20% to 100%. Biogas is produced using organic materials such as animal waste.

The hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will have a weight capacity of more than 65,000 pounds, Volvo said. The maximum weight allowed for a truck and load in North Carolina is 80,000 pounds.

‘Already running late’

Fuel cells work like batteries, but do not run down or need recharging. They produce electricity and heat as long as fuel — in this case, hydrogen — is supplied.

Because water is the only byproduct of the process, no greenhouses gases such as carbon dioxide — the leading manmade contributor to climate change — are released into the atmosphere.

But while the fuel-cell system itself is considered emission-free, the hydrogen used for it may not be.

Hydrogen is produced through electrolysis, which involves passing electricity through water. If fossil fuels such as coal or natural gas are used to create the electricity, the hydrogen produced brings its carbon footprint to the fuel-cell process.

At Duke Energy, North Carolina’s largest utility, coal and gas still make up more than 58% of the company’s electricity generation while solar, wind and water power account for a combined 7% (nuclear totals more than one-third).

With that energy mix, finding “green” hydrogen produced entirely with clean energy can be a challenge. But Volvo’s Alm said market forces will help to change that.

“We expect the supply of green hydrogen to increase significantly during the next couple of years, since many industries will depend on it to reduce (carbon dioxide),” he explained. “However, we cannot wait to decarbonize transport. We are already running late.”

In North Carolina, transportation is responsible for nearly 36% of greenhouse gas emissions, making it the economic segment that contributes most to climate change in the state. However, medium- and heavy-duty trucks account for about one-fourth of the total.

In 2020, trucks traveled more than 9 billion miles on North Carolina roads and highways while all vehicles covered 106 billion miles combined, according to the N.C. Trucking Association.

Big order

Volvo Trucks North America began taking orders for its original VNR Electric truck in December 2020 and started production in early 2021.

In March of this year, California trucking company WattEV ordered 50 VNR models that it plans to lease to customers at a per-mile rate, including charges, that is “on par” with what it charges for its diesel trucks.

WattEV is building a public network of heavy-duty truck charging depots to service major transportation corridors that connect shipping ports with freight distribution centers and warehouses.

John Deem covers climate change and the environment in the Triad and Northwest North Carolina. His work is funded by a grant from the 1Earth Fund and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.

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