By Glen Martin | Dec 13, 2021
Battery packs for commercial trucks Class 4 through 8
If the transition of the global energy net from fossil fuels to climate-friendly sources can be likened to the turning of a massive supertanker, the prow of the ship has begun to pivot -- but it has a long way to go before it's on a carbon-neutral course.
A lot of technologies are being developed -- or proposed -- to hasten the process: mass deployment of renewable sources including solar and wind, scalable storage systems for on-demand power when the sun isn't shining or the air moving, next gen nuclear power plants, fusion plants, and of course, electrification of the world's vehicle fleet. It's in that last category where perhaps some of the most heartening progress is being made. EVs -- i.e., electric vehicles -- are most decidedly in vogue, with the distance ranges between charges steadily increasing and prices dropping.
Relatively speaking, personal automobiles are the low-hanging low-carbon fruit in transportation. Not that they don't account for a lot of hydrocarbons: about 56 percent of the oil consumed by the U.S. transportation sector goes into cars. As EVs gain in popularity and charging stations propagate, the transformation of the nation's automobile fleet into an environmentally sound model seems highly possible -- even likely.
But there's another nut in the sector that's much tougher to crack. Commercial trucks account for about 25 percent of the nation's transportation energy consumption and are categorized as Class 4 through 8, accommodating weights from 14,000 to more than 33,000 pounds. A variety of factors have stymied electrification of the commercial and freight truck fleet, battery limitations and inadequate policy incentives among them.
However, electrification of the nation's commercial fleet is essential, and not solely for the sake of a rapidly warming planet. Electric trucks would dramatically curtail particulate air pollution, especially at ports and commercial hubs, saving thousands of lives a year from the dire effects of heavy diesel exhaust.
Romeo Power, a California-based company founded in 2016 by a group of former Tesla and SpaceX engineers, is determined to hasten the electrification of the trucking fleet. Brennan says the company's efforts dovetail with a larger goal of eliminating "energy poverty" by creating a world where everyone has access to clean energy.
"It's a broad mission, certainly, so for your contribution to be effective you have to determine just what you’re going to do," says Brennan, who has worked on EV strategies for more than 20 years, including for Ford and Nissan. "For us, it's trucks class 4 through 8. It's building batteries that will really function well in that space. And we have no doubt we're in the right place at the right time to achieve our goals."
Brennan says electrification of the commercial truck fleet is "on the one-yard line," but interest in the space is intense and investment is accelerating. Further, real progress is being made; she notes that Romeo Power's batteries already have 30 percent greater energy density than is typical for electric autos.
"Energy density is critical for a few reasons," says Brennan. "First, it increases range without expanding the physical footprint of the power source. The greater the density, the smaller the physical dimensions of the batteries. High density batteries save space and weight, and they're less difficult to install. The greater range and ease of installation of higher density batteries also lowers the cost of ownership for both fleet and individual owners. And lower ownership costs mean we can get more people into electric trucks sooner, accelerating wholesale conversion of the industry."
Lowering costs of ownership, in fact, is foundational to Romeo Power's entire mission.
"Regulation can help speed things, but most technological change occurs when economic and physical realities conjoin, when the technology meets the demands of the marketplace," says Brennan.
Brennan cites the current gridlock at the ports as an example, noting she expects some regulatory changes -- such as incentives or requirements for EV trucks -- once the backups are analyzed.
"But my expectation is we'll be seeing an independent move to electrifying transport in and out of the ports by the time the reports start coming out," she says. "In fact, shipping and transportation companies are already changing to electric. My job is to speed that process up, to make sure the technology is meeting the demands of the market."
But it's not all about dollars and cents. As noted, electric commercial trucks are easier on the environment -- and the trucker. Their contribution to atmospheric carbon loading can be minimal to nil depending on recharge source, and they don't spew noxious fumes and particulates into the air.
"They're also far more comfortable to drive," Brennan says. "If you’ve ever been in a large diesel or gas commercial truck, you know there's a tremendous amount of noise and vibration. That all goes away with an electric truck. We're confident that the biggest supporters of our technology will be the truckers themselves."
Challenges: "We're a smaller company, and we're located in an area that doesn't have a particularly large manufacturing footprint," Brennan observes. "But again, we also see that as an opportunity. We're growing very rapidly, and we're adding more manufacturing capacity in 2022." Romeo Power's revenues for third quarter 2021 were $5.8 million, a 753 percent increase year-over-year.
Opportunities: "We're determined to electrify the most difficult parts of the transportation sector," says Brennan. "That may seem like a challenge, but we believe it's our greatest opportunity."
Needs: "Talent," says Brennan. "We're looking for people who want to build a company that will make a real difference in helping out the planet. We need people who want to write the future, not read about it."