As the first large-scale adopter of electric trucks in Australia, Team Global Express’ experience offers plenty of learnings on the challenge facing operators in the transition to zero-emissions transport
Choosing the location, and make and model of trucks, for the largest-ever trial of an electric logistics fleet in Australia was the easy part for Team Global Express.
The site for the trial, dubbed ‘Project Cobra’ as a homage to project lead Heather Bone’s love of classic American V8 cars, at Bungarribee in Western Sydney was selected due to its strategic location, nature of operations, and suitability of the existing facilities to host the necessary battery and charging infrastructure for the fleet.
The project will see nearly one-third of the depot’s fleet transition to electric trucks and operate under a ‘back-to-base’ model with travel from distribution centres to customers in residential and urban areas, with the trucks returning to the depot for charging.
Construction of the depot and associated charging infrastructure commenced shortly after Christmas, and the depot will be receiving the 60 vehicles over an 18-month period starting in early 2023.
In a recent episode of the ‘Emerging Possibilities’ podcast produced by Volvo Trucks, Bone – Team Global Express’ head of ESG – says the company initially considered depots in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney for the trial.
Bungarribee was the logical choice because of its predominant focus on express parcels – a short-haul, back-to-base freight task suited to electric vehicles, and its existing installed solar capacity.
The EV Fleet
Deciding on the makes and models of EVs suited to the task was also reasonably straightforward, Bone adds.
Team Global Express has chosen a fleet comprising 36 Volvo FL electric trucks fitted with 10-pallet van bodies, a GVM of 5,900kg, and a range of up to 300 kilometres; plus 24 Fuso eCanters with power output rated at 135kW and 390Nm of torque designed for local distribution in high-density urban areas.
And $20.1 million in funding from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) to cover half the project’s estimated cost of $44.3 million helped justify the hefty investment in trucks and associated infrastructure.
“We had originally started with 30 Volvos and 30 Daimler Fuso eCanters … thinking okay this is logical, this is the distances they can go, but when we looked at the weights and the postcodes and the distances and actually got into the details, we discovered that we couldn’t go as far as we needed to with the Fusos with those payloads, versus what we anticipate we can get out of the FLs,” she says.
The real challenge, according to Bone, is the incredibly complex task of designing the site to accommodate 60 EVs and, critically, the charging infrastructure required to support them.
“I think the existing energy on a site and the existing infrastructure is probably more challenging than the trucks themselves,” she says.
“We’ve got 180 or so trucks on that site, we’re taking over a third of the site, so we can’t really think of this just as we’re buying 60 EV trucks, we’re actually changing a whole site and the site behaviour, so it’s going to be really challenging to do that.
“I try to explain to people that it’s not a transport project, it’s a total energy management project. There’s 60 trucks but there’s also 63 chargers, we’ve got 47 slow chargers, AC chargers, we’ve got 16 fast chargers, we’ve got three spare, we’ve got a one-megawatt battery coming to the site.
“How we then install these on the site is going to be incredibly challenging.”
Based on the configuration of the Bungarribee site, which has six wings each with a capacity of around 64 trucks across two rows, the decision was made to focus on converting one entire wing to EVs.
“We stood back and said okay, if we’re going to make these changes, we’re going to have to make the changes to a whole wing,” Bone says.
“We can’t just put in one truck or two trucks, it doesn’t make sense because we’re going to have to change all of our conveyor systems … the zones those trucks have to drive to has to change, the driver behaviour has to change.”
Reconfiguring the wing to accommodate 60 EVs and the required charging infrastructure is not straightforward, she points out.
“When I first started looking at site I thought okay, well if we’re changing these two sides or these two rows, it would make sense to put the charging infrastructure where the trucks park up at night.
“Except for the fact you can’t do that because the trucks are coming and going so constantly there was such a fear on site that the drivers would just reverse straight into them and we’d be taking out chargers left, right and centre,” Bone says.
“So we decided to actually park them up in two areas, one towards the back of the site in what is currently considered to be a green zone, so there’s going to be 40 parked up in a grid formation a bit like the start of a Formula One grid, with seven over another side as well with some fast chargers there.
“But really importantly, we’ve got these 16 fast chargers down the front of the site which is where the trucks come in and go over the weighbridge.
“If they come back to the site and they need that quick top up, they can do that during the day and it’s right next to the driver facility.
“The drivers can park up, go into the cafeteria, have their lunch, go and grab a coffee, and 20 minutes later they will be topped up.”
The Energy Infrastructure
Installing the energy infrastructure to support 63 chargers is also not a simple task.
“When we looked at the load on the site, we already have 400 kilowatts of installed solar capacity on it. That only covers about 25 per cent of our site needs, so it’s still light on,” she says.
“Other operations might be able to charge during the day, other users might be able to constantly rotate fleets so that they’re charging 24-7.
“For us, in that application, they’re out from first thing in the morning to 5 o’clock or 6 o’clock at night when the solar’s doing its job and it’s feeding back into the grid and we’re losing the benefit of it, which is why we’re getting the battery.
“We’ve got this [one-megawatt] battery coming so that between four o’clock and eight o’clock at night when the peak loads spike from 12 or 15 cents per kilowatt hour up to 500 cents per kilowatt hour, we can start arbitraging the market and managing that peak load. So that battery is going to play a really integral part as a storage system.”
Besides energy infrastructure, Bone says the project has also involved a massive change management program to get the team onboard, from the board of directors down to the drivers and everyone in between.
“The one thing I under-estimated was the support and passion for this project from our leadership team. When I first went to them in October last year, not once did they come back and say ‘that’s a really dumb idea, Heather’.
“The fleet team came around fairly quickly and went okay, you know what, we’re going to have to give this a try because they can see that this is coming down the line, whether we like it or not.”
Prior to signing the contract with ARENA, the company had two weeks of negotiations with representatives from the Transport Workers Union (TWU) and its 200 or so members on site.
“We’ve also run town hall sessions, sometimes three of four a day starting at 6:30 or 7 o’clock in the morning. They would come in, I’d show them what we were doing, this is what the plan is, allow them to ask the questions, and there was incredibly legitimate concerns [about] range anxiety [and] all of those things we talk about,” Bone says.
“And so there was quite a sense of fear around this, but I have to give it to the drivers that in going through that process they’ve come along on the journey. They’re really supportive, they’re really excited that they’re going to [part of] this world first.”
Just as importantly, the change management process has required education and training for Team Global Express’ sales and marketing team.
“Our sales and marketing team, the customer interface, they got on board early and so over the three-month period before that two-week period I was running training sessions more broadly on ESG for our sales and marketing team for them to understand things we take for granted because we live and breathe it.
“[These sessions addressed issues such as] what’s the different between scope one, two and three emissions, what is the truck going to look like, how is it going to be charged at night.
“That is going to have to be constantly reinforced and reiterated because the customers are now coming out of the woodwork … [saying] we want to be a part of this.”
While the focus for the next 12-18 months is on executing the trial, Bone says the company will also take the learnings and apply them to other projects.
“From here, [we’ll be] taking those learnings and saying what do we do next because we can’t stop here, we can’t just sit back. We’re just at the tipping point,” she says.
“We now need to start looking at how we commercialise this, where’s the next opportunity for us, because we want to stay ahead of the ball game, we want to be the most sustainable transport and logistics operator.
“And I think that will be a combination of where is the next logical depot to roll this out, that we can prove doesn’t need ARENA support to do.
“I think we’ll be as quickly as possible looking at how we roll out HVO [hydro-treated vegetable oil, a renewable alternative to diesel] across the fleet.
“I really want to get renewable diesel into our fleet and it’s a drop-in alternative so it’s a no-brainer, except for the cost of course.
“I’ve got projects on the go around hydrogen and looking at fuel cells. Hydrogen is going to play a big part. We’re going to look at how do we change out to sustainable aviation fuel [SAF], how do we change our forklifts, what can we do around fuel efficiency and driver behaviour.”
Learnings will come from successes as well as failures, Bone believes.
“I know there’s going to be things that fail, without a doubt there will be things that fail, but the whole point of doing this is to learn from those failings,” she says.
“And every depot is going to be different. I now know the questions to ask. I don’t know what the answers are, but at least now I know what the questions are going to be that if I go to another depot, I can say ‘hey, have you thought about this, this and this?’ And I think that’s the important part.
“I look at our other depots and the layout is remarkably similar at a lot of our depots … physical layout and the electrical layout … but the trucks or the application of them on those sites is different.
“Some of them, for example, are predominantly palletised express, so they’re taking prime movers, [and] we don’t really have a prime mover solution yet for an EV.”
Bone’s advice for operators about to embark on a similar journey? “Think of this as an energy management system. Be agnostic to what that energy is or where it’s coming from, because I think that at a point in time we will have … electric vehicles will get bigger, batteries will go further, hydrogen will become available.
“In the meantime, we have to have HVO, we’ve got to get renewable diesel, and then at some point in time it’s going to meet in the middle,” she says.
“And don’t under-estimate those ‘what if’ moments and map them out, start to play with them, because EVs will absolutely have a place and an application, [but] it might not be your application. You can’t just assume that EVs are going to be best for that application.”
And, finally, don’t under-estimate the complexity.
“When you look at the financial model, it’s not just a financial model, it has all of those levers I was talking about. What happens if the energy costs skyrocket, what happens if the battery’s not working one day?” she says.
“In our case, we’ve got 180 vehicles on that site and we’re only putting in charging infrastructure for 60, we’ve already topped out that site. And these are the babies!
“Once you’re head starts thinking outside that box and without those constraints it’ll open up your mind to all the different options available to you.”
In the meantime, check out the raft of zero-emissions vehicles on display at this year’s Truck Show – from battery electric to hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles!
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