How truck stops could drive the electric revolution

Truck stops have incorporated a number of side businesses to keep up with the changing needs of customers – gaming, branded restaurants, and crude-oil hauling to name a few.

But generating electricity hasn’t even been on the radar.

Now, as the prospects for electric trucks shift from concept to reality, Neil Chatterjee believes electricity generation could be the next big thing.

As Chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission – the top regulator of the nation’s power grid – Chatterjee said the need for a stable electricity infrastructure to support the trucking industry is analogous to a trend occurring among the world’s technology platforms.

“If you look at the big energy users – Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL), Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN), Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) - they’re moving beyond the traditional model where they’re just energy consumers, they’re actually impacting energy markets because their data centers consume so much power,” said Chatterjee, speaking with FreightWaves on February 12 after a NATSO board meeting at the fuel retailer group’s annual conference in Orlando.

Because they eat so much power, those ubiquitous tech companies have built their own wind- and solar-generated power stations. To meet the needs of an electric truck future, truck stops may eventually consider doing the same, Chatterjee said.

“If the trend lines continue, an electric truck is going to be a lot larger, more elaborate, and more expensive to recharge than a passenger vehicle. And if you’re a Pilot Flying J operating in 44 states and absorbing massive energy costs as a result of the electric transition that could come, I think you would have to consider an alternative means, rather than just procuring power from your utility and having it taken from you.”

As federal policy stands today, Chatterjee said, a driver in a battery-powered truck wouldn’t care what the truck stop’s electricity costs are – he would be able to get his truck recharged at no cost “other than what he was charged for chips and soda,” because there is as yet no mechanism in place to compensate the truck stop owner.

Another question: if a truck stop owner decides to invest in electric generation, where would that owner locate the generating source?

“There’s a misconception of the need for a rooftop to install solar – it doesn’t have to be within your square footage on site, you could have it built offsite and piped in. There would be many ways to go about this.”

Exploring these questions was the point of opening a dialogue with fuel retailers regarding electric trucks, he said. “It’s a very complicated issue. We will have to sort through what [compensation] would mean – it could include carve outs and deals with utilities, the possibility of a resale of electricity, or procuring your own generation. But it’s all theoretical right now.”

A native of Lexington, Kentucky, Chatterjee was nominated to FERC by President Donald Trump and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 2017. He’s not a stranger to infrastructure – electric or otherwise. Prior to joining the commission, he was energy policy advisor to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) during the Obama administration, and over the years has helped shape major energy, highway, and agriculture legislation.

While he hadn’t read the details of the Democrat’s Green New Deal, which would have to rely heavily on electric vehicles to achieve its goal of zero emissions in the transportation sector within 10 years, he agrees with many who view it as overly ambitious.

But he has also seen first-hand how legislation considered to have little chance in Congress in its original form can nonetheless become the basis for things that eventually get done.

“The point of [the Green New Deal] being rolled out now is to drive the political conversation in a certain direction, and [NATSO] has to pay attention. Just because the overall package goes nowhere doesn’t mean you don’t need to track it. Small pieces can gain traction, and you don’t want to be blindsided by it.”