Three Changes the EPA Should Make to the Clean Ports Program

Last fall, the U.S. made a historic $3-billion investment through the Inflation Reduction Act to decarbonize America’s maritime industry. The Clean Ports Program, administered by the Environmental Protection Agency, will provide funding to help port operators cover the cost of replacing their diesel-powered equipment with zero or near-zero emissions alternatives.

This is an incredible opportunity to cut emissions at ports, where commercial trucks and other heavy-duty equipment are largely diesel-powered.

Port leaders support the transition to cleaner energy, thereby creating a safer work environment, but the legislation doesn’t set operators up for success. To ensure the program will meet its goals, the EPA should make a few key changes to ensure maritime challenges and realities are considered.

1. Extend Lead Times for Replacing Equipment

Although there’s understandable urgency around pushing for adopting the use of cleaner vehicles at ports, the timelines outlined in the program aren’t realistic for a few reasons.

First, there’s the issue of lost return on investment for existing equipment that still has operational life remaining. Prematurely retiring diesel-powered cargo handling equipment such as cranes or trucks means that hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on those resources will go to waste.

The cost of purchasing new equipment is another issue. Electric equipment costs more than twice as much as diesel-powered versions, with prices for a single electric tractor nearing $600,000. There’s an additional cost consideration in the equation, given that electric equipment may need to be taken out of use during a shift to recharge the battery.

Legislators could adjust the timelines to allow for the transitional replacement of cargo-handling equipment and provide a wider window for operators to access and spend the funding on electric alternatives. 

2. Allow Temporary Overseas Equipment Purchases

Acquiring new equipment on an accelerated schedule is challenging given the current status of specialized electric equipment production. Even as manufacturers and battery suppliers are starting to develop electric port machines, production timelines are still long.

Current wait times for delivery of an electric container handler are a year or two as U.S. production hasn’t scaled to match demand.

The Inflation Reduction Act also includes a mandate to purchase American-made machines, even though not all heavy-duty equipment is currently made domestically. Equipment manufactured outside the country isn’t eligible for the program. If the government wants ports to adhere to rapid equipment transitions, they should allow ports to makes purchases from overseas manufacturers until the U.S. catches up.

3. Support the Updating of Utility Infrastructure

Shifting to all-electric cargo handling equipment isn’t simply about getting new machines. Ports must prepare their infrastructure to handle increased demand for electricity and establish sites to charge the equipment.

Making changes to port utility infrastructure is a heavy lift. Operators need ample time to update the layout of the yard and make necessary changes and improvements. Without support from utility experts, planners and engineers, port operators might be slower to go all-electric.

These three changes regarding the implementation of the Clean Ports Program will dramatically improve the success of the program—reducing carbon emissions at our ports and increasing the safety and health of our supply-chain workforce.

Operators and others impacted by the IRA should voice their opinions to EPA representatives and offer ideas to help make the Clean Ports Program a success.  

Robert Murray is president of the National Association of Waterfront Employers (NAWE), the voice of the U.S. marine terminal operator and stevedoring industry in Washington, DC. NAWE promotes marine cargo efficiency, security and health, a clean environment, international trade and economic growth through advocacy, education and industry cooperation.