All-electric handling isn’t without its downsides
A lack of charging standards, inability to keep up with battery demand and overwhelming infrastructure redesign demands could stunt all-electric potential, explains Barry Cross.
Port authorities and terminal operators have publicly professed that they are keen to introduce across-the-board electrically-operated mobile handling equipment, but only if it offers operational, environmental and financial advantages over diesel.
While equipment providers haven't ticked all three boxes yet, they confirm in interviews with Port Strategy that they are edging closer to finding all-encompassing solutions.
Willem Nieuwland, project leader at Hyster Europe, believes it is technically possible to electrically power mobile handling equipment for use throughout the supply chain, but appreciates that cost constraints are holding back large scale roll-outs.
“It is not really a question as to whether the technology exists, but in what form it will be economically viable for applications,” he says. “In fact, many port operations are already using electric lift trucks and warehouse trucks for highly efficient handling from ship to port-side store.”
Peter Söderberg, vice president of offering development at Kalmar, is similarly upbeat on the technology side: “Electrification is a strong development area that we plan to introduce in all our products,” he says, adding that batteries offer advantages in respect of emissions, noise and vibrations and in the need for maintenance, compared with diesel.
In his opinion, batteries are presently good for intermittent operations with charging opportunities during waiting times, or in between shifts. For continuous operations, Kalmar is also investigating other solutions, such as fuel cells in combination with batteries.
“I expect we will offer different versions for different applications,” Mr Söderberg says. “We already have battery technology in our mobile container handling offerings suitable for one and two shift operations, plus we are seeing rapid development and expect to be able to get more energy on board in batteries in only a few years from now.”
Trouble in paradise
However, while similarly optimistic about the future of batteries, Konecranes' Ralf Konnerth identifies problems, not just with lithium-ion, but also with established lead-acid batteries. The latter, he notes, are heavy and require long charging cycles of up to six hours, so most recharging has to take place overnight. To get around this, replacement battery packs have to be stored, charged and swapped over in a separate, fully automated exchange station, as is the case with the company's automatic guided vehicles (AGVs).
There are, he notes, two types of lithium-ion batteries, which partially overcome lead-acid batteries’ shortcomings, although they bring problems of their own.
One provides a similar amount of energy as lead-acid but can be quick-charged in 1.5 hours. The other type, which is used in hybrid-driven vehicles, is capable of so-called ultra-fast “opportunity” charging, whereby a vehicle regularly recharges when not in operation, but crucially takes on board only low levels of energy.
However, the elephant in the room for lithium-ion is a lack of global standards, so if early adopters select the wrong supplier of battery technology, they could soon find themselves with outdated equipment.
Worryingly, Mr Konnerth suggests escalating demand, driven by other industries, also means existing cell manufacturing capacities won’t be able to keep up with demand, making deliveries unpredictable.
“Using current technology, it makes sense to use battery power for AGVs and terminal tractors in a container terminal, but not as a single source for straddle carriers or large reachstackers,” he says. “This is because the energy needed to hoist a laden 40-foot container would mean having to use enormous battery packs, which on a straddle carrier would imply raising the machine's centre of gravity. This could result in slower overall operation to prevent the machines from tumbling over.”
Kalmar's straddle carriers can already be bought with a fast-charge system which provides continuous operation by charging on average for five to six minutes per hour of operation.
Yet Konecranes has shied away from introducing electrically-powered straddle carriers. Mr Konnerth explains that the company's philosophy is predicated on offering only electric vehicles capable of operating for at least one full shift prior to recharging. That is because, while opportunity charging for lithium-ion equipment can be achieved in some cases in just 30 seconds, the charge only gives a few minutes of operation.
“Not only do you need a lot of charging equipment throughout the terminal, but terminals also have to make more space available.”
Worse still, “the logistics of ensuring available charging locations to recharge while securing a good utilisation of the same is almost as sophisticated as planning the entire operation of a container terminal itself,” he warns. “The planning required just to get the equipment charged is unbalanced when considered against the effort to secure a high number of productive moves.”
According to Hyster's Mr Nieuwland, whose company specialises in heavy duty lift trucks and reachstackers, “if an application needs to charge a battery completely, it is unlikely this can be done as quickly as filling up a diesel truck.” However, he believes that, in applications where opportunity charging of batteries is possible, electric trucks powered by lithium-ion batteries “are expected to be a good option”.
However, it could very well be that limitations of the grid prove to be the major stumbling block to the wholesale adoption of electrically-powered lift equipment.
“We have found that the power needed will generally exceed what is available on the grid, so identifying renewable energy sources is key,” Mr Nieuwland says. “This additional energy will also be required to help applications deal with peak seasonal demands. One effective way to store this energy is with hydrogen, which is widely available and enables fast fuelling to maximise uptime in ports. Hyster Europe expects to shortly offer on-board Nuvera hydrogen fuel cells to power big trucks.”
A further consideration when moving to electrically-powered trucks is that significant changes are needed to the site's infrastructure, for example installing large cables underground. As this requires investment, in future, standardised charging for all mobile equipment in ports will be needed. To make this possible, customers and manufacturers will need to collaborate and innovate.
Finally, in terms of return on investment, Mr Nieuwland points out that the payback period varies depending on the application and how much investment is needed to create the charging infrastructure. “Another factor to weigh up is whether port operators will save money by switching to electrics because they will avoid penalties they would otherwise have to pay due to producing carbon emissions,” he adds.
IS OPPORTUNITY CHARGING REALLY THE WAY FORWARD?
A big advocate of opportunity charging — a system that permits batteries to be charged several times during the work cycle — for electric port equipment is Nidec ASI, whose Ultra Fast Charger (UFC) claims to recharge an electric vehicle to 80% of its full battery charge within 15 minutes. However, the caveats are that this depends on battery voltage, capacity and technology.
It hooks up to the national grid through charging towers, simplifying and accelerating recharging, while at the same time reducing operating costs.
Matteo Rizzi, director of global sales and marketing for renewables at Nidec Industrial Solutions, notes that, potentially, the UFC could be used to recharge any mobile handling unit in a port terminal whose electric motor draws nominal power of up to 400kW-500kW for that application.
“Nidec has already been dealing with a project where port battery energy storage has been required to provide peak savings,” he says.
He insists that there are no downsides to ultra-fast charging of batteries, since all batteries have been designed to cover certain life cycles and workloads. Furthermore, opportunity charging of batteries no longer leads to battery degeneration.
The life of lithium-ion batteries is improving all the time. Nowadays, it is not unusual for a battery to have a capacity warranty of at least 10 years (and sometimes 15 years) and 3,500 cycles.
But do overall lifecycle costs decrease if a terminal switches to electrically-operated mobile equipment? That, Mr Rizzi concedes, is a somewhat more complicated question to answer, since much depends on a port's configuration and its operating economics before any firm conclusions can be drawn.
“However, in principle, electric motors lower capital and operating expenditure when compared to diesel-powered engines,” he says.
Electric motors have a strong impact on the overall environmental perspective, significantly lowering CO2 emissions, which in itself might be a good enough reason to consider a change, adds Mr Rizzi.
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