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Maine truckers are feeling the pinch of high diesel prices — but aren't embracing electric yet

toby watson statewide towing.jpg
Patty Wight
/
Maine Public
Toby Watson, a truck driver with Statewide Towing, refuels at Dysart's truck stop in Hermon.

Every day, commercial trucks travel across the country to deliver the goods we count on. But meeting that demand comes with an environmental cost.

Medium and heavy-duty trucks account for roughly a quarter of all transportation-related emissions in the U.S. They are the second largest emitter in the transportation sector, behind passenger vehicles.

Deep Dive Climate Driven

And while Maine has set concrete goals for introducing smaller electric vehicles into the marketplace, the road ahead is more uncertain for large commercial trucks.

This story is part of our series "Climate Driven: A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time."

If anything, you might think that the skyrocketing cost of diesel would spark enthusiasm for electric heavy-duty trucks.

As Michelle Millington fills up her rig on a recent weekday at Dysart's truck stop in Hermon, she says she's feeling the pinch — or really, the punch — of diesel prices.

"They're outrageous. In upstate New York, you can't even afford to go. I think the lowest they're paying is $6.39 right now. A trip last year would cost me $1,000, it's costing me about $2,000 now," Millington says.

Millington runs Snow's Transportation out of Carmel . She used to have five trucks, but the cost of fuel and other maintenance forced her to park all but two. Still, Millington says she prefers to operate old trucks that she can fix herself.

"It'd be costly. All my trucks are old trucks. I don't run the new trucks.," she says. "If I want to go home and turn wrenches, I can go home and turn wrenches. I don't have to take them to dealers. I don't like the new trucks."

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Patty Wight
/
Maine Public
Michelle Millington and her son Ryan of Snow’s Transportation stop at Dysart's truck stop in Hermon.

This was a typical response among the drivers Maine Public spoke to at Dysart's.

Even those who were more open to the idea of electric trucks, such as Richard Foss of Foss Transportation in Machias, see reducing heavy-duty truck emissions as more of a pipe dream than a reality.

"I don't want pollution. But I want biscuits, and I want steak and all that, and to move it around the country, we're gonna make pollution," Foss says.

Brian Parke, the president and CEO of the Maine Motor Transport Association, which represents the trucking industry, says that some experts call this period "the messy middle."

"You know, an emissions solution or set of solutions has been identified. And that's the beginning. We know where we'd like to be in the end. But getting there is clunky and it's messy and it's fraught with twists and turns that make it seem like we'll never get there, but we will. Eventually, we definitely will," Parke says.

Eventually is the operative word, because while Maine has set specific benchmarks to get more electric passenger vehicles on the road to reduce carbon emissions, there are no such goals for electric medium and heavy-duty trucks.

Joyce Taylor, chief engineer at the Maine Department of Transportation and co-chair of the transportation working group for Maine's climate action plan says there's a reason goals for larger commercial trucks have taken a backseat.

"I think as a state, we've prioritized light-duty vehicles, personal cars, etc. They're just more available right now," Taylor says.

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Patty Wight
/
Maine Public
Richard Foss of Foss Transportation and Mike Smith, supervisor of the Dysart’s fuel desk.

And transitioning medium and heavy-duty trucks to electric is more complex. They require larger batteries which take longer to charge and put more demand on the power grid. Taylor says concerns about charging are a major barrier for fleet owners.

Taylor calls the feeling "grid anxiety," or "not understanding what that cost of power is going to be to install what they need to install, and then to continue to pay whatever they're going to pay."

Taylor says drivers are also concerned about range. For some drivers who are paid by the mile, how far a truck can travel on a charge has major financial implications.

Another hurdle is the price tag for heavy-duty electric trucks which can cost triple the price of a fuel truck. Mike Roeth of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency says upfront cost can be a barrier, but just like smaller EVs, he says electric trucks are easier to maintain and have lower operating costs.

"They're simple trucks and they're going to deliver even in these very early stages, so I'd say don't be afraid of them," he says.

Because tests the Council has done with electric trucks have shown that drivers love them, because they're quiet, offer a smooth ride, and don't smell like diesel. As for how practical they are, Roeth says medium-duty electric trucks work well and will likely scale up fast. Even heavy- duty trucks are a viable option for those that travel shorter distances — about 200 miles a day — and return to base every night, where they can charge.

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Patty Wight
/
Maine Public
Tony Brown, a truck driver, by his rig at Dysart's truck stop in Hermon.

"Now, as you get into heavier trucks that go longer distances, that's where battery electric trucks start to stumble. And the battery packs become so big, the charging times become so long, the weight of the batteries, the just everything, it just becomes really challenging," Roeth says.

Roeth estimates it'll take at least a decade to develop the technology and the charging infrastructure to support long-haul trucks. But he encourages other segments of the trucking industry to start exploring options now. In Maine, Joyce Taylor from the Department of Transportation says she hopes to send a contingent of drivers to an upcoming conference on electric trucks to generate enthusiasm.

"What I'm seeing is, once people have seen these, touch these, they get excited. And if they can find a truck that works for them, they're willing to think about it," Taylor says.

And that could inform a stakeholder group that's working to develop a state roadmap specifically to electrify medium and heavy-duty trucks, which is expected to be completed by the end of the year. A spokesperson for the Mills administration says a new law also calls for planning to determine how the grid can best meet increased demand in the future that will be driven, in part, by electric vehicles.

Back at Dysart's, truck driver Tony Brown says he'd love to be able to drive an electric rig.

"Anything to get away from fossil fuels," he says. "I've got kids, so I'd like to see them live"