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Is Zero-Emission Freight Possible? The Port of Los Angeles Thinks So

The ports in southern California are cleaning up their act, but what will it take to ship cargo with no emissions?

Container ships can now plug in while berthed at the Port of Los Angeles, which lets them use the electric grid to keep the lights on rather than burning fossil fuels. (Port of Los Angeles)
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In a conference room high above the 43 miles of waterways that make up the Port of Los Angeles, the view is incredible: cranes, ships and the massive Pacific Ocean. The port looks much the same from the outside as it did ten years ago, when the giant cargo ships and tens of thousands of diesel trucks spewed out nearly half the sulfur particles in the LA region.

Now, those emissions—and others—have dramatically declined at the country’s largest port. So what’s different?

“The guts inside the port are completely changed,” says Gene Seroka, the executive director of the Port of Los Angeles.

From zero-emission electric trucks to ships that plug in, California has an ambitious plan to have an emission-free freight system by 2050. The efforts are already having a real effect on the health of people around southern California—and it could be a model for the rest of the country.

The port has succeeded in decreasing particulate pollution by 83 percent since 2005 and lowering levels of sulfur. That’s important, because the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports, which stand side by side in San Pedro, are the largest single source of air pollution in Southern California, generating about 10 percent of the region's smog-forming emissions, according to the South Coast air district.

The health effects of air pollution have been widely studied, and bad air is linked to everything from cancer to asthma, heart disease and even the volume of white matter in the brain.

And of course, reducing emissions has benefits for slowing global climate change.

Fifteen years ago, the port was growing fast—as was the dirty air. So the port came up with a plan to clean the air while expanding. They started investing in new technologies like alternative marine power (also known as AMP), which is “basically a giant extension cord that you pull out to plug into ships,” says Seroka. The Port of LA was the first to develop AMP, which is now an international standard. The power lets ships use the electric grid while in port instead of burning fuels, and 24 berths at the port are set up to do so. Ships use power to load and unload goods, to keep refrigerators running, and to keep the lights and emergency equipment on.

The port also had success reducing emissions by requiring ships go slower and switch to cleaner-burning fuels when close to land. In addition to ship technology, the port has been testing and using electric trucks, cranes and lifting equipment. There are other, less concrete ways that the port reduced emissions, including optimizing the supply chain so trucks didn’t have to idle for long periods, spewing out exhaust into the air.

Adding rail connectors to each of the eight terminals also lets cargo move with less pollution. In Los Angeles, about a third of cargo leaves on rail, and the other two-thirds go by truck either to distribution centers east of Los Angeles or to the giant market of the Los Angeles region. “You can think of a basic equation: if you have a box and it’s moved by a truck then the emissions of that box are the truck,” says Chris Cannon, director of environmental management at the Port of Los Angeles.But if you can put a whole bunch of boxes on a train, the emissions per box go way down, so we always try to prioritize rail.”

A future of even more experimental technology looms in the next few years. Last week, the port and business partners announced that it will launch the Green Omni Terminal Demonstration Project, a $26.6 million project which will operate completely off the grid using a microgrid that includes solar power and battery storage.

One new feature of Omni is ShoreCat, a giant hood that covers a ship’s smokestack, capturing any exhaust while in port (because not all the ships have plug-in capacity). The project is estimated to cut greenhouse gas emissions by more than 3,200 tons per year and reduce diesel particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and other harmful emissions by nearly 28 tons annually—equivalent to taking 14,100 cars a day off the road, according to a press release.

The hope is that the technology will go beyond the port and demonstrate the viability of electrified equipment and vehicles. Seroka says he hopes it serves as a scalable model for moving goods sustainably that could be replicated at thousands of distribution facilities throughout California and beyond.

An aerial view of the Port of Los Angeles shows how massive the port really is--and what an effort it is to clean it up. (Port of Los Angeles)

It’s easy to think of the ports—any port, really—as a self-contained unit, but the cargo that moves on and off ships has to go somewhere, so the emissions and pollution from the port really spins off to the rest of the country.

“One of the things that most people miss is that goods movement is a regional issue,” says Ed Avol, professor of clinical preventive medicine at the University of Southern California, who studies the effects of air pollution on communities around Los Angeles. “What begins at the port just accentuates across the whole area, affecting everything from traffic to air pollution many miles away from the port.”

Those effects are one reason that California is working on a Sustainable Freight Action Plan, which sets a goal of transitioning to zero emissions tech in all freight—air, land and sea—by 2050.

Trucks may be dirty, but they’re ubiquitous—and simple. Kevin Hamilton, CEO of the Fresno-based Central California Asthma Collaborative, a nonprofit focused on mitigating the burdens of asthma and other chronic and acute respiratory conditions in the San Joaquin Valley, admits that it’s difficult to think of a way around using heavy trucks to move cargo. “I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have a better way to get these goods anywhere than putting them on a truck,” he says. “We have to accept that we are going to have them around for a while.”

Hamilton adds that low-emissions trucks that run on natural gas may be a stepping stone before zero-emissions trucks hit the roads.

And it’s not too much of a stretch to think about trucks changing over to cleaner power before California's goal of 2050. According to Hamilton, the average lifetime of a diesel truck is 20 years, but most trucks that carry high-value loads, like fresh food, across the country get sold after only five years.

Of course, it’s going to take some cash. The cost for a truck with no emissions, for example, is about $150,000 per unit or more above a conventional vehicle, according to a 2015 white paper the Port of Los Angeles published. Hamilton says there’s about a 20 percent price difference to move to a zero-emissions truck.

Port planning firm Moffatt & Nichol calculated that terminals in Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland would spend around $7 billion over the next 30 years to replace terminal operating equipment and related infrastructure. If the terminals choose to or are required to replace retired units with zero or near-zero emission equipment, the total cost would be $23 billion, a more than 225 percent increase.

Seroka admits that the technology being tested now at the Port of Los Angeles doesn’t come cheap; each electric truck has to be manufactured for the port. But without trying new things, innovation won't happen. “If the operators like the new machines and if they work, they’ll start to be mass-produced,” he predicts.

Chris Cannon adds that technological innovation and environmental stewardship take time. The Port of Los Angeles started testing zero-emissions trucks in 2007. The program has had ups and downs—while the projects demonstrated that the concept is solid, early models tended to experience power inverter, battery and battery management issues, and eight out of 14 units were returned to the developers.

The first versions could only last three or four hours per charge when pulling a heavy container. The next lasted for eight, then 14—and now the port has electric trucks that can work for 18 hours on a charge. “People tend to focus on one step, but it’s all an evolution,” says Cannon. “We have had dramatic improvements, but we have to go through iterations to get it just right.”

Cleaner ships and trucks do have a concrete effect on human health, especially in vulnerable populations. When Ed Avol started to look at the ports as a source of pollution in the early 2000s, the side-by-side ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach were responsible for almost a quarter of the particulate burden in the region. Avol joined a long-term study that looked at children's health in the LA region. The study commenced in 1993, with 3,600 fourth graders from 12 different communities. Each year, the children got a breathing test while the researchers monitored levels of different pollutants in their communities.

The study found that kids from places with poor air quality—including neighborhoods near the ports—had less-developed lungs during their teen years than kids who grew up in cleaner areas, and that children who grew up close to big roads were especially at risk. As the study continued to monitor kids, it found improvements in the air mirrored progress in health: the percentage of teenagers in the study with low lung function dropped by half from the mid-1990s to 2011. 

For the communities around the ports, better air has become an issue of environmental justice. "People who live near these operations are in lower socio-economic strata and are often overlooked,” says Avol. “Working to clean up the ports is [as much] an issue of environmental equity as anything else.”

So the air is clearer now, but there is still more to do—and the low-hanging fruit has been picked. “It’s an ongoing challenge, because the easiest things get done first—for example, a cleaner fuel for the ships in port,” says Cannon.

Still, looking out at the biggest port in the country, it seems the future may be driven by technology that doesn’t foul the air, leaving room for everyone to breathe a bit easier. 

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