'The Writing's on the Wall': Electric Batteries' Rapid Progress May Have Just Doomed Natural Gas Trucks

David Shultz

David Shultz reports on clean technology and electric vehicles, among other industries, for dot.LA. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Outside, Nautilus and many other publications.

'The Writing's on the Wall': Electric Batteries' Rapid Progress May Have Just Doomed Natural Gas Trucks
Image from Tesla

Last month, when dot.LA toured the Hexagon Purus facility in Ontario, California, multiple employees bemoaned the California Air Resources Board’s (CARB) ruling on renewable natural gas (RNG) as a hindrance to decarbonizing trucking-haul trucking. They argued that keeping RNG classified as a “near-zero emission” fuel prevented companies using financial incentives like the Hybrid and Zero-Emission Truck and Bus Voucher Incentive Project, which, as the name suggests, is only available to true zero-emission trucks. The effect, they said, was that the agency was missing an opportunity to accelerate the state’s transition away from diesel.

But over the weekend, Tesla CEO Elon Musk took to Twitter to announce that the EV company’s battery powered class 8 semi-truck had completed a 500-mile trip fully loaded (to the tune of 81,000 lbs). It now appears CARB’s refusal to classify renewable natural gas (RNG) as a zero-emission fuel source was ultimately the right decision.

Just two years ago Bill Gates famously declared that, “even with big breakthroughs in battery technology” electric vehicles were simply not ready to tackle long-haul trucking. If Tesla’s numbers hold up to scrutiny, it proves Gates and many other industry experts were likely wrong to suggest that “we need a different solution for heavy, long-haul vehicles.” And while 500 miles represents the lower limit for what’s necessary to transition long-haul transportation to battery power, Tesla’s announcement proves the tech is getting there.

What’s interesting is that the transportation sector saw the same arguments in the 2010s against passenger EVs. But then lithium-ion batteries underwent a small revolution where energy density gains outpaced even the most bullish predictions. And while such a surge in performance is unlikely to be repeated, even incremental gains on a truck with 500-mile range could cement the technology as the dominant energy source for the sector.

So what does this latest announcement mean for natural gas trucks?

As it currently stands, natural gas, in addition to hydrogen fuel cells, is still touted as a low- or even negative-carbon solution that could let the trucking industry slash emissions and get to net zero. In such a model, biowastes such as manure or plant scraps are harvested and converted into natural gas that can be combusted inside an engine. While this process does create CO2 as a byproduct, the amount of carbon saved by cleaning up the biowaste is often equal to or even greater than what’s created when the gas is burned. Industry insiders have often pointed to the fact that renewable natural gas can outperform alternatives from a greenhouse gas emissions perspective.

Tesla’s announcement also comes at a time when trucking giant Cummins recently showed off a new 15-liter natural gas engine design, which the company has advertised as a way for fleets to reduce their carbon usage and comply with California’s stricter nitrogen oxide emission requirements coming in 2024. Natural gas, the company has said, could once again be the “bridge fuel” that buys the industry time while hydrogen fuel cell and battery tech matured.

But outside of the trucking industry, environmental policy experts also seem increasingly confident that batteries represent the best chance for decarbonization. Colin Murphy, the deputy director of UC Davis' Policy Institute for Energy, Environment and the Economy, points to the fact that RNG is only carbon negative due to the credits it receives for reducing methane emissions.

Put another way, if California cleans up its methane problem anyway–as CARB has been proposing–there’s no sense in rewarding transportation companies for capturing and burning natural gas.

“If agriculture has to reduce their emissions in order to keep in line with the rest of the economy, they can't have this giant emission of methane out there that transportation is taking credit for,” says Murphy. “It's carbon negative for now, but it will not be carbon negative forever.”

Without the credit for capturing methane, burning natural gas is still 60% to 70% better than diesel in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, but compared to a battery charged from a grid that’s increasingly powered by solar, wind and other zero-carbon renewables, natural gas quickly loses much of its luster.

The same logic applies to RNG’s benefits to nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions compared to diesel: They’re real, but they’re second best to actual zero-emissions tech like hydrogen and batteries. NOx pollution is generated in both diesel and natural gas engines and emitted at the tailpipe. While these chemicals don’t contribute as much to climate change as CO2, they create smog and air pollution that is a major health burden worldwide.

“These [natural gas] vehicles, they certainly are contributing to climate change, but they're much more closely tied to the local air quality,” says Patricio Portillo, a senior advocate for the NRDC’s Climate & Clean Energy Program. “And what we've seen, especially with natural gas vehicles, is that they don't really live up to the hype.”

Portillo notes that the vehicles receive their NOx ratings at the time they’re manufactured. But as the trucks age, components degrade and the actual amount of pollution they create increases.

“On the other hand, you are plugging into an increasingly clean grid with zero-emission vehicles,” he says. “So if anything, those things are just going to get cleaner over time, as the electricity grid continues to get cleaner.”

As CARB continues to drive policy with the state announcing a ban on new diesel truck sales by 2040, the transition to greener transportation will be a massive effort. To be clear, there is still a ton of work to do, on both the infrastructure side and on the supply chains needed to power such a massive undertaking. But at the moment, announcements like Tesla’s are increasingly looking like a signal that legacy truck makers and fleet owners would be wise to heed.

“If I'm a fleet looking at this, I think it's pretty clear that the writing's on the wall,” says Portillo. “It took some time for the technology to get there, but it's there now. It's not worth continuing to invest in second-best technology, because the result is going to be stranded assets for natural gas.”

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LA Venture: Emilio Diez Barroso On Why Everyone Isn’t Cut Out To Be A Founder

Minnie Ingersoll
Minnie Ingersoll is a partner at TenOneTen and host of the LA Venture podcast. Prior to TenOneTen, Minnie was the COO and co-founder of $100M+ Shift.com, an online marketplace for used cars. Minnie started her career as an early product manager at Google. Minnie studied Computer Science at Stanford and has an MBA from HBS. She recently moved back to L.A. after 20+ years in the Bay Area and is excited to be a part of the growing tech ecosystem of Southern California. In her space time, Minnie surfs baby waves and raises baby people.
LA Venture: Emilio Diez Barroso On Why Everyone Isn’t Cut Out To Be A Founder
Photo: provided by LAV

On this episode of the LA Venture podcast, Bold Capital Partner Emilio Diez Barroso talks about his entrepreneurial journey, what led him to become an investor and shares the qualities he looks for when investing in companies.

Bold Capital is a Series A fund that primarily focuses its investments in deep tech and biotech companies. But, like other funds, they make excuses to invest in other companies every now and then.

“We're always interested in things that have the potential to truly transform how things are done and uplift humanity,” he said.

In his experience with investing in early stage startups, Diez Barroso said “humility and vulnerability are assets and qualities in the journey, and you don’t feel like you have to have it all together with your investors.”

Which is why he looks for people who have “this capacity to take full responsibility for how they show up and they have a vision and they have the willingness to go and execute it.”

In addition to his work at Bold Capital, Diez Barroso also runs two family offices which provide him with a surplus of knowledge in the investment space.

“I wear two very different hats,” he said, “and I invest very differently when I'm investing for myself, when I'm investing for my family, and when I'm investing for LP’s.”

But before becoming an investor, Diez Barroso got his entrepreneurial start when he arrived in Los Angeles. He admits that he failed plenty of times because unlike in Mexico, where Diez Barroso grew up, he didn’t have the same access to the contacts or resources of his family business.

“I would say yes to every opportunity that came my way,” he said, “I had started or partnered with someone and co-founded and most of them I had no idea what I was doing, so most of them really failed and a few got lucky enough to succeed.”

After learning how these startups worked and investing his own capital into several companies, he soon realized he was a much better investor than an operator.

“I think we're not all cut out for the journey,” he said, “and I don't think we should all be cut out for that journey. I think that it takes a very different character to start something from scratch.”

Throughout his own journey, Diez Barroso acknowledged that he struggled with his own identity and need to feel like the smartest person in the room. Once he better understood his own motivations, Diez Barroso was able to see that he was chasing the next reward, the next carrot.

“It's fun to close the deal and it's fun to grow the business,” Diez Barroso said. “But what I hadn't been in contact with is how much of my fuel was derived from trying to outrun the idea of not feeling good enough.”

Of course, he’s not alone. “I see a lot of entrepreneurs, activists all across fields and I can tell the difference when they're running from this fuel that is sort of very quick burning because there is an anxiety that oftentimes makes us narrow minded,” Diez Barroso said. “We are so attached to what we think should happen that we leave very little space for the possibilities.”

dot.LA Reporter Decerry Donato contributed to this post.

Click the link above to hear the full episode, and subscribe to LA Venture on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

This podcast is produced by L.A. Venture. The views and opinions expressed in the show are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect those of dot.LA or its newsroom.

Xos Receives Multi-Million Dollar Order for Armored EVs

David Shultz

David Shultz reports on clean technology and electric vehicles, among other industries, for dot.LA. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Outside, Nautilus and many other publications.

Xos Receives Multi-Million Dollar Order for Armored EVs
The United States transportation sector is rapidly adopting electric vehicle technologies at every level. From aircrafts, to tractor trailers, to sedans and bicycles, no means of locomotion is off limits…even armored trucks.
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