By Raleigh Gerber on

By Andrew J. Littlefair, President and CEO, Clean Energy

The Los Angeles and Long Beach areas continue to have the worst air quality in the county, a dubious honor that the American Lung Association has bestowed on us for over a decade. Much of the responsibility for our air and climate pollution lays at the wheels of thousands of old dirty diesel trucks, including many that operate in and around the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Millions of Californians—particularly sensitive populations such as children and the elderly— face negative health impacts due to the air they breathe. Air and climate pollution are serious issues occurring today, yet our state is spending billions of dollars that effectively is a big bet that battery electric trucks will someday replace aging diesel trucks.

It is unknown if and when battery electric trucks will be commercially ready, viable and affordable. Yet many policymakers have an all-in electric mindset without regard to the real human cost of delaying action. Instead of prematurely choosing an unproven technology, clean air policies should embrace competition by including all advanced alternative technologies capable of offering the best performance with the fewest emissions at an affordable price.

The singular belief in electrification ignores the most viable, affordable and immediately available solution: heavy duty trucks powered by renewable natural gas (RNG) that are operationally proven in the field, deliver ultralow pollution and carbon emissions, and do not face substantial infrastructure hurdles that may take decades to construct. RNG is a transportation fuel made from organic waste from landfills, dairy farms and wastewater treatment plants. Readily available across an established infrastructure, RNG is a domestic, low-carbon, and sustainable fuel that dramatically reduces air and climate pollution. In fact, according to the California Air Resources Board, RNG can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by over 400% compared to diesel – emissions so low they are carbon negative.

Before gambling on battery electric trucks, we need confirmation that they are good for the economy, the environment, the pocketbook and our country. This is because battery electric vehicles have huge hidden emissions from the power plants used to charge their batteries. There are also environmental and human labor issues associated with mining the materials that make electric vehicle batteries, and a lack of comprehensive recycling for used batteries.

We need to ask ourselves: Is there a nationwide network of charging stations ready to support these battery electric trucks? Will battery electric trucks fail like other large battery vehicles, as we’re experiencing now with transit buses? How will we keep charging these batteries when we need to shut down our power grid to protect us from wildfires?

California needs more clean air vehicles on the road and we therefore should be promoting all clean air technologies, not gambling on a single unproven strategy. While we wait for transportation electrification to gradually materialize over the next few decades, clean and sustainable RNG-powered trucks are taking to our roads and making immediate improvements in air quality today.

Diesel trucks appear to be cheaper than clean trucks until external factors such as human health and the environment are counted in the cost. However, we don’t have unlimited money to buy new clean trucks. Solving air pollution and climate change requires solutions that are affordable and cost-effective. According to a study conducted by the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, an RNG-powered truck only costs one-half more than a diesel truck. Meanwhile, this study found a battery electric truck costs 3.6 to 6.5 times the cost of a diesel truck. Replacing 8,000 of the oldest diesel trucks at the Ports with battery electric trucks will cost up to $5.6 billion more than the cost of RNG-powered trucks. Anyone concerned about port competitiveness, jobs, and our economy should be worried about who will be stuck paying billions of dollars for battery electric trucks.

It’s unfortunate when public policy makers arbitrarily pick winners that may or may not work and oppose proven technologies that do work. Meanwhile, California continues to lose ground on transportation-related emissions of climate and air pollutants. Policy makers should focus on results – clean air and a healthy planet – and stop picking winners at the cost of our kids’ futures.

This opinion piece was published in the Journal of Commerce on November 27, 2019: