Electrification of equipment is in vogue, but does it pay off, asks Alex Hughes
With all the talk about emissions and automation, ports the world over are considering making the first-step move of electrification of yard equipment. but it's not as simple as flicking a switch. Moving from diesel to electric operations of any scale is not a job for the faint-hearted.
For a small terminal (such as an inland terminal) with a limited number of machines, the infrastructure impact will be limited. However, bigger terminals will face some important challenges that will have to be overcome. He cites examples of peak power demand and managing the charging within the duty cycle of the terminal planning system to avoid gridlock because of the extra layer of complexity in the planning. In fact, Hyster believes that for these reasons, hydrogen will become a more popular fuel for yard equipment because if offers more flexibility for re-fuelling.
However, Jon Arnup, owner of the Trent Global consultancy, says that from a purely technical solutions perspective, it is relatively easy for a port terminal to make the switch from a diesel to electric operation. The difficulty comes, he says, with the effort needed for transition; disturbance during that transition; and cost, depending on the solution chosen.
As for a timescale for a full switchover, Mr van den Brand says this depends on the existing infrastructure and the future planning for investments. Market readiness will be determined by region, he adds, while there is no one solution that fits all.
“We expect the switch over to be done gradually, but the key is having good integration with various dependable partners.”
Mr Arnup points out that civil infrastructure work can take anything from two to six months, and sometimes longer as has been seen in several cases, although this is ultimately dependent on various factors, such as the size of the terminal, available space within terminal, the high voltage (HV) circuit, and substation location.
“Putting in the necessary cabling need not cause major disruption to the business, although it is definitely disruptive, since significant areas, including container stacks, do have to be shut down during this period,” he says.
Electric operations also need space for charging station, and with space at a premium in many ports, Mr van der Brand suggests two solutions: “One might be to have charging stations underground where they will not take up space, while wireless charging options are also available.
"However, this needs to be reviewed for every individual application," he adds. "For electric trucks powered by hydrogen fuel cells there will be fewer problems with space as hydrogen refuelling is comparable to refuelling of diesel trucks.”
Some terminals might be concerned by the loss of valuable working area, but Mr Arnup points out that for the electrification of rubber-tyred gantry cranes, no charging station is needed since power comes from the terminal’s HV electrical supply. Even if a terminal opts for a full battery solution instead, these are charged and powered by a very small diesel engine and through regeneration, so no additional space is required.
In contrast, for terminals going over to battery-powered automatic guided vehicles (AGVs), as in the case of the DP World facility in Rotterdam, a fully automated battery charging and replacement facility is required, which can be quite large.
Park and charge
Another solution for charging, according to Mr Arnup, is an induction system, where AGVs or other all electric vehicles are charged from the ground as they stop and/or park for short periods of time.
But, he says that this type of electrical infrastructure "is a costly and inefficient way of charging though, with a significant percentage loss of power due to current inefficiencies in induction charging today".
And question of whether conversion to electric operation generates a financial return on investment remains controversial. “I had a very painful personal experience of going into a terminal where a decision to electrify had already been made, but not all the factors had been properly taken into account when justifying the potential savings,” says Mr Arnup.
There are important lessons to take on board when considering the switch. It’s easy to show savings in the cost of diesel, but according to Mr Arnup equally as important are yard and paving conditions, and how a terminal utilises its RTGs, ie will RTGs remain predominantly in one area, or will they be subjected to multiple lane changes, increasing the risk of accidents as RTGs connect and disconnect to the electrification solution being used. If these are not right then damages from accidents and slower RTG productivity can negatively impact the investment and turn a potentially positive ROI into a very negative one in a short space of time.
“The wish to reduce diesel is invariably linked to an environmental KPI a terminal or operator has, but sometimes missing is the detailed understanding of the power source, because this is beyond the boundary of the terminal," explains Mr Arnup. "In these cases, the operator should consider the electrical provider and how they generate their power for the terminal operator, ie are they generating their power through nuclear energy, gas, coal or renewables. Not all electricity providers are equal – and if the environment is reviewed not only for the terminal, but outside of its borders, then the overall environmental impact an operator may be looking for, may not look so good."
Return on investment
When pressed on an average return on investment period for switching to electric Mr Arnup declined to speculate, pointing out that what appears on paper can be very different to reality.
“The situation for a greenfield terminal is entirely distinct," he says. "Adopting electrification or battery power from the start would appear to be advantageous in many respects,” he says.
Mr van den Brand adds that the case for ROI is not always financial: “ROI depends on many factors, such as the price of diesel today and the price of energy. Duty cycles, the cost of pollution, funding and the ‘green image’ are all considerations. The Hyster laden container handler powered by electric motors is being developed in response to the evolving needs of customers, who are increasingly demanding zero-emission trucks to support their environmental goals.”
MAKING POWER WORK FOR YOU
As for the thorny issue of exactly what a terminal’s maximum electrical draw is, Mr Arnup says it is relatively easy to both calculate this and to increase it, although the latter can be potentially very costly. In those cases where electrical draw cannot be easily boosted, terminals are left looking at ways of reducing their power usage.
“Of course, this is doable, but could require either a minor or major re-design of a terminal’s HV circuit and modifications to yard-based equipment such as electrified RTGs or RMGs, in order to gain the maximum benefit from what all cranes provide when lowering, i.e. significant electrical power gets put back into the terminal grid for other items to use,” he says.
If the reason extra power cannot be obtained is due to the provider itself, there are technical ways around this too, he adds, involving doing more with the same electrical power or moving to more energy efficient solutions, such as lighting.
Mr van den Brand gives an example of 20 trucks, charging at 200kW: “If all are charging at the same time you would need four Megawatts of power, which is similar to the power needed by 3,000 US homes. So the issue is peak demand. If all equipment starts charging at the same time then grid overload can easily occur. Grid management will be key and that needs to be considered in the planning.”
For those considering the switch, there has to be confidence that the external power supply is going to be reliable, since major back-up generator power to support a fully electric operation is out of the question, given the prohibitive cost of installing and running one.
For this reason, some terminals, but not all, still opt to keep a large diesel genset on board some of their RTGs, to guard against outages.
And there no need to go 100% electrified; ports can retain a mix of electrified and diesel gensets until they find their feet in the world of electrified yard equipment.
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