A machine stacks shipping containers.
An electric stacking crane at Pier J at the Port of Long Beach. Courtesy of the Port of Long Beach

The San Pedro Bay ports have been at work for more than three years now on a plan to convert all of their cargo-handling equipment to zero-emission technology by 2030.

Late last month, the ports released the project’s first three-year update report, which found there has been significant progress toward achieving that goal. But the document also made clear that plenty of work lies ahead.

The plan to have a full fleet of cargo-handling equipment that produces zero emissions is a major component of the San Pedro Bay Ports Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, which seeks to mitigate the ports’ impacts on the environment and local communities. It’s important because, as the Port of Long Beach’s Air Quality Practices Manager Morgan Caswell said in an interview, “we absolutely need to see transformation here at the Port of Long Beach, and particularly for our local communities who bear the burden of port-related impacts.

“We are trying to address that in a variety of ways,” Caswell added, “but we really do see cargo-handling equipment as a good opportunity.”

While the ports are working to move all cargo-handling equipment to zero-emission technology, the initial 2018 feasibility assessment for the project and the recently released update report noted that a special focus is being placed on four types of high-horsepower, diesel-powered equipment: yard tractors, top handlers, rubber-tired gantry cranes and large-capacity forklifts. According to the 2018 assessment, those four types of equipment collectively emit more than 85% of the total pollutants from the ports’ entire cargo-handling fleet.

Among those four types of equipment, though, there’s a huge variation in the challenges of converting to zero-emission technology.

Rubber-tired gantry cranes are the furthest along, with near-zero-emission options already fully available and fully zero-emission options not far behind. Battery-electric yard tractors, meanwhile, have seen significant progress since 2018. There aren’t any zero-emission or near-zero-emission options available for top handlers or large-capacity forklifts, but the report released last month noted that manufacturers “have demonstrated significant progress to advance the commercial and technological maturity” of battery-electric technology for both types of equipment.

The varying levels of progress for the four types of technology highlight a significant challenge the twin ports face in this effort: To move to a completely zero-emission fleet, zero-emission equipment must be available—and as of now, that’s not the case.

Caswell acknowledged that difficulty and noted that part of the reason for the effort and the plan to publish update reports throughout the 12-year project is to highlight the demand for the technology and encourage manufacturers’ work to develop it.

“The assessment is intended to influence,” she said. “So we do aggregate this information and analyze data from our real-world demonstration projects such that the original equipment manufacturers, also called OEMs, understand where the shortcomings are in their technology.

“It’s also a great resource for companies trying to break into this space and provide this type of equipment to marine terminals,” Caswell added.

The reports break down the progress on each type of technology into five parameters:

  • Commercial availability, which gauges whether a piece of equipment can be ordered and delivered at a volume large enough to realistically serve the ports;
  • Technical viability, which tests whether the equipment can perform the necessary duties specifically in a seaport setting, rather than in a less-demanding site such as a warehouse;
  • Operational feasibility, which measures whether the equipment can serve the two full shifts that are currently expected from diesel technology;
  • Infrastructure availability, which takes into account the equipment necessary to support zero-emission technology, such as charging stations; and
  • Economic workability, which weighs the costs of purchasing and maintaining the zero-emission equipment against the same costs for its diesel equivalents.

Each of those metrics is key to the project’s success, Caswell said, and she pointed to one lesson the ports have already learned the hard way.

“One of the biggest challenges we experienced in the first three years, I think if you spoke to our terminal operators, is … we don’t have a charging standard for cargo-handling equipment,” she said.

As the technology is still being developed, Caswell said many companies have their own proprietary chargers to support their specific products. At one point, she said, the port installed some chargers to serve yard tractors, but operators found that those chargers didn’t support tractors that were purchased later on.

“They very quickly became obsolete, and it became very clear we needed to coalesce as a state—or, we’d rather prefer, as a nation—around one charging standard,” Caswell said, “and so that was an important lesson learned.”

As the ports continue to work toward the 2030 goal, there are sure to be plenty more lessons learned. And given how many factors are involved in achieving a full fleet of zero-emission cargo-handling equipment—almost all of which the ports themselves don’t control—it’s unclear how realistic that timeline is.

Caswell said one important piece of determining the timeline’s feasibility is a project that’s currently underway to develop zero-emission infrastructure master plans in partnership with terminal operators. Those master plans will identify the zero-emission equipment that will be used in the terminals, the infrastructure that equipment will require, the schedules for deploying that equipment, the costs associated with it and the preliminary designs for implementation.

“I think, without those roadmaps at each terminal, it’s really difficult to say whether or not we’ll be able to meet that 2030 timeline,” she said. But, “here at the Port of Long Beach, we’re still driving toward that 2030 goal.”

Hayley Munguia is editor of the Long Beach Business Journal.