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Can America's Biggest Ports Go Green?

The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have set an audacious goal: reducing their greenhouse gas emissions to zero.

On a sun-splashed stretch of asphalt along the Los Angeles waterfront, officials from the busiest port complex in the United States recently offered a glimpse of their hopes for the future: a new generation of 18-wheel trucks that can carry cargo from ports to warehouses throughout Southern California while emitting nothing but water.

The experimental vehicles use hydrogen fuel cells developed by Toyota to power heavy-duty trucks built by Kenworth. Their manufacturers say the new trucks, which have a range of 300 miles, can perform as well as their traditional diesel counterparts. Eventually, four companies, including Toyota and UPS, will use 10 of the prototypes to haul cargo from the ports. The oil company Shell will build hydrogen fueling stations for the trucks to use. 

The trucks are being introduced in California because the state, along with the port authorities in Los Angeles and neighboring Long Beach, has made zero-emission operations a top priority. To support the new fleet of hydrogen fuel-cell trucks, the state agency that sets air pollution regulations is spending $41 million in matching grants that are funded by cap-and-trade fees the state imposes on carbon dioxide pollution. 

The ports have promised to move completely away from trucks that produce greenhouse gas pollution, such as carbon dioxide, by 2035. That’s especially ambitious considering that the technology that the ports will need -- like the Toyota trucks on display in April on Earth Day at the Los Angeles port -- is still being developed. It’s not clear yet when heavy-duty, zero-emissions vehicles will be commercially available, much less affordable enough for cargo-hauling companies to buy or dependable enough to use in the country’s busiest ports. If the ports’ plan backfires, cargo ships could take their business to competing ports around the country and one of Southern California’s most important economic activities could dwindle.

California officials offer a more optimistic vision: If the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles can operate with zero-emissions vehicles, they could show the way for other ports around the world to do the same. 

“The ports of L.A. and Long Beach are probably the toughest testing venues there are for new technology,” says Chris Cannon, the director of environmental management for the Port of Los Angeles. Because of the volume of traffic in the Southern California ports, equipment there is expected to run more frequently and for longer hours than at many other U.S. ports, he says. “If the equipment can work here, it can work anywhere.”

The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach sit alongside each other on San Pedro Bay, some 20 miles south of downtown Los Angeles. They are separate entities and often compete fiercely. Still, the two ports share much in common. Both have deep shipping channels that allow them to handle the increasingly large ships that cross the Pacific Ocean. Both have some of the most extensive dockside rail operations in the country, which helps them quickly transfer goods from ships to trains and vice versa. They split a manmade island full of cargo terminals, share a dedicated railroad corridor and sit behind the same 9-mile breakwater across the southern edge of the bay. 

There are two openings in the breakwater. On the west is “Angels Gate,” which leads to the Port of Los Angeles. To the east is “Queen’s Gate,” named for the Queen Mary, the 1930s luxury ship that is permanently docked at the Port of Long Beach. A third of all cargo packed in containers that is imported into the United States passes through those gates. Los Angeles is the busiest port in the United States for container traffic; Long Beach is No. 2. 

Both ports handle many kinds of cargo that is not shipped in containers, as well -- oil, new cars, coal, concrete. Cargo that isn’t destined for West Coast markets is put on freight trains that haul it across the country, giving the Southern California ports an outsized role in the nation’s economy, especially for trade with China, Japan and other Asian markets. The ports say that they are responsible for some 190,000 jobs just within their own cities, and as many as 3 million jobs nationwide are tied to the goods flowing to and from San Pedro Bay.

While the ports are a major source of economic activity for the greater Los Angeles area, they are also the region’s biggest source of air pollution. The twin ports, after all, are massive logistical operations serviced by a huge assortment of vehicles: cargo-laden container ships, oil tankers, tugboats, massive ship-to-shore cranes, rolling stacking cranes, container-lifting top-loaders, forklifts, yard tractors, freight trains and roughly 16,000 trucks. Almost all are, or until recently had been, run on diesel or other petroleum-based fuels. 

The ports have worked together over the past decade to phase out the oldest and dirtiest of those vehicles, which has led to major reductions in some of the most dangerous pollutants. The ports track the emissions of basically anything that moves through them, because local air monitoring stations don’t necessarily pick up pollution that blows inland. Since the ports first rolled out their Clean Air Action Plan in 2006, the amount of diesel particulate matter -- soot and other tiny solid particles that can cause cancer and other respiratory problems -- produced by the ports dropped by 87 percent. The ports’ production of nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides, which can both produce smog and cause health problems for humans, dropped 58 percent and 97 percent, respectively. Air quality is still a major problem in the region, because of increased traffic at the ports and because of nearby polluters, including oil refineries and other major industrial sites. But the reductions are significant.

The previous efforts, however, did not address greenhouse gas emissions, such as carbon dioxide, which have a global, rather than a local, effect. The state of California and many of its municipalities, including Los Angeles, have pushed aggressive policies with the goal of addressing climate change by reducing the state’s carbon dioxide emissions. Those include a statewide cap-and-trade system, which took effect in 2013, to make polluters who produce carbon dioxide buy credits at auction from the state. California also leads a dozen states that set their own vehicle emissions rules. Last year, lawmakers voted to require 100 percent of the state’s electricity to be generated from renewable sources by 2045. 

It’s hard to imagine a green future for California without addressing pollution from two of the state’s biggest industrial sites. So two years ago, the mayors of Los Angeles and Long Beach agreed to their most ambitious goals yet: to become zero-emissions ports. They agreed to transition all of the cargo-handling equipment on the docks to zero-emission vehicles by 2030, and do the same for trucks servicing the terminals five years after that. Their agreement calls for the ports to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

In many ways, the ports’ new mission to tackle greenhouse gas emissions is in line with their previous efforts to reduce other kinds of air pollution. Some previous initiatives, in fact, are being expanded to account for carbon dioxide. But make no mistake, this shift is much more ambitious. Fighting smog and soot largely required operators to upgrade their machinery to more modern, cleaner versions of the same equipment. Eliminating carbon dioxide emissions could mean changing the way cargo haulers that use the ports do business.


Chris Cannon, director of environmental management for the Port of Los Angeles

The biggest result of the ports’ decade-old Clean Air Action Plan was a requirement that all of the diesel trucks that used the ports had to use modern engines. After several updates, the requirement today is that new trucks registered with the port have to have been produced since 2014. 

The so-called Clean Trucks Program upended the business model for drayage trucking services. Prior to the modern-trucks requirement, drayage companies that service the ports often bought used trucks from long-haul companies with hundreds of thousands of miles on their odometers. The trucks were cheap. They might have been less reliable than brand-new rigs, but that wasn’t a major concern because they were deployed on short-haul routes. Of course, because they were older and didn’t use the latest pollution-controlling technology, the trucks that serviced the ports were also among the dirtiest on the road for air pollution.

To get trucking companies to switch to newer vehicles, the ports relied on both sweeteners and tighter regulations. They offered grants to truck owners to offset some of the costs of the new vehicles, but they also required that trucks had to register with the ports to haul cargo there, and only newer vehicles were allowed to register. The combination worked, and the fleet of trucks servicing the port turned over in just a few years. Of course, that means that truckers who paid $140,000 or more for their new vehicles are in many cases still paying off those trucks today. Worse yet, thousands of truckers bought vehicles that ran on liquid natural gas (LNG). These vehicles broke down frequently and often could not handle the loads of up to 80,000 pounds that drayage trucks routinely move.  

The new truck requirements resulted in big gains for air quality, but they left much of the trucking industry wary of the ports’ environmental initiatives.

The earlier clean air efforts targeted more than just trucks. The biggest sources of pollution at the ports, after all, are the nearly 4,000 ships that call at the two ports every year. 

One effort that was already in the works, but has since been greatly expanded, was to add infrastructure that allows ships at berth to “plug in” to shore power provided by the ports, rather than running diesel-powered generators on board to keep on the power while the ships are being loaded and unloaded. Plugging in one container ship for a day has the same pollution-reduction effect of taking 33,000 cars off the road for that day. Back in 2004, the Port of Los Angeles was the first port in the world to offer the service, but now state air regulators require ports to use the technology. Moreover, the state will soon raise the percentage of container ships, refrigerated vessels and cruise ships required to be plugged in to land-based power from 70 to 80. Vessels that don’t plug in to the shore power can be fined by the state.

Ships that are not equipped for shore power can also use a barge-based system that places a cap over the ship’s exhaust port and pipes the fumes into machines on the barge that clean the air. Currently, the machines only take out diesel particulate matter and smog-causing chemicals, but there are hopes that the technology could eventually be used to remove carbon dioxide as well. Private companies are also working on a mobile land-based system.

Another way Los Angeles-area ports cut back on ship-generated pollution was by getting them to slow down as they approach the harbor. Since 2001, the ports have offered financial incentives for vessels to slow to less than 12 knots within 20 nautical miles of the port entrance; the ports extended the slow-zone to 40 miles in 2008. The incentives seem to be working. In 2017, 97 percent of vessels that called at the Port of Long Beach slowed down for the 20-mile zone, and 91 percent traveled at lower speeds for the entire 40-mile zone.


Ships that are not equipped for shore power can use a barge-based system that places a cap over the ship’s exhaust port and pipes the fumes into machines on the barge that clean the air.

For the most part, the policies in the earlier pollution-reduction efforts relied on technology that was already on the market. Meeting the ports’ carbon-reduction goals, though, could require the deployment of technologies that are still in development today. 

The regulations don’t specify, for example, whether trucks and harbor equipment will have to run on electric batteries, hydrogen cells or even natural gas. At this early stage in their development, there are drawbacks to each. Batteries are heavy, which decreases the amount of freight trucks can carry while complying with weight limits of 80,000 pounds. The form of hydrogen needed for hydrogen fuel cells is difficult to obtain and often requires the release of greenhouse gases to isolate it. Natural gas is largely seen as a “bridge” to get the ports and carriers closer to their zero-emission goals while developing non-fossil fuels, but many trucking companies soured on the fuel when natural-gas-powered vehicles fared so poorly during the Clean Trucks Program.

Port officials are trying to avoid what they see as the mistakes of their previous pollution-reducing push by placing a greater emphasis on demonstration projects. Such projects can determine whether the different types of technology can withstand the rigorous workload on working docks. 

State and federal agencies have spent more than $117 million on trials of 229 vehicles at California ports, much of it over the last two years. They include vehicles run on battery power, natural gas, hydrogen fuel cells and even diesel-electric hybrids. The manufacturers involved include well-known brands like Volvo, Daimler and Peterbilt, as well as the fast-growing Chinese electric vehicle company BYD and many small startups. (One company that’s been noticeably absent has been Tesla, which unveiled an electric Semi model to much fanfare in 2017 but has been relatively silent about the project since.) 

Most of the trucks and cargo-handling equipment still have significant issues to address. Many fall short of the goal of being able to work two full shifts without refueling, as diesel vehicles typically do. There are other headaches as well. Startup companies, for example, may focus so much on the alternative energy source powering a truck that they overlook flaws in key parts of the vehicle. 

To keep tabs on the progress vehicle builders are making, the ports are also publishing viability studies every three years to assess whether their stated goals are actually achievable. The updates are designed to prevent another situation where authorities rush cargo-moving companies to buy technology that proves unworkable.

The different approach by the ports this time is easing some minds, says Tracy Egoscue, the president of the harbor commission for the Port of Long Beach. “I’m not hearing the same angst” as in the previous rollout, she says. Instead, the cargo companies are telling her “they are excited about these trucks; they’ve seen them work and they think that they can handle the charging time [for battery-powered vehicles].” 

The collaboration allowing businesses to have a say in how cleaner vehicles are introduced in the ports is exciting, says Egoscue. “If we can’t figure this out, if we can’t keep moving cargo and make sure that we can also meet our air quality goals, at some point the health implications and the law are going to start to infringe on the business,” she says. “So it really is good for the business long term to figure out and adapt in a way that facilitates their continuation.”

Although the ports are at the forefront of the zero-emission goals, they actually have limited powers to enforce them. The port authorities are branches of their city governments, but they act like developers and landlords rather than regulatory bodies. They lease out the terminals to cargo companies, which are then in charge of loading and unloading ships, along with managing day-to-day business operations at their terminals. Even when the ports launched the Clean Trucks Program, they were essentially piggybacking on state and federal regulations that required newer vehicles to produce less pollution. The ports’ move to zero-emission and near-zero-emission vehicles will depend on regulations that haven’t been written yet.

That’s troubling for Thomas Jelenić, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association (PMSA), an industry group that represents ocean carriers and terminal operators. Previously, Jelenić worked for the Port of Long Beach and was one of the architects of the Clean Truck program.

With the earlier mandates, “everyone knew what was going on, how much it would cost, and what the cost going forward would be,” he says. “The latest version doesn’t take that approach. It’s an aspirational approach by a date certain. We don’t know the path forward, but, in order to meet those standards, we need to invest now.” 

Another major concern that Jelenić and trucking advocates raise is whether the ports will have the necessary electric infrastructure installed to support a major shift from diesel-powered vehicles to battery-powered vehicles. 

Some of the worries are simply about capacity: Will there be enough power generated and a robust enough grid developed near the ports to handle the demand? But there are other concerns as well, says Weston LaBar, CEO of the Harbor Trucking Association. Off-peak electrical use is supposed to be cheaper than using electricity during the day, but what happens when some 16,000 trucks -- not to mention thousands of other pieces of harbor equipment -- plug in to recharge overnight? Will that become a new window for “peak” rates, and, if so, will that make battery-powered vehicles unaffordable?

“A lot of folks in the industry believe that the vehicles aren’t quite ready yet, but the vehicles will be ready well before the infrastructure to support them is,” LaBar says.

The electric utilities insist that they are well prepared for increased demands at the ports and they, like other companies doing business at the port, have been testing out new technologies to get ready. For example, Southern California Edison (SCE), which services the Port of Long Beach, is in the middle of a $356 million program to install charging facilities throughout its region for 8,500 medium- and heavy-duty vehicles through 2024. At least a quarter of that money is earmarked toward ports and warehouses. At the same time, the company also plans to shift toward more environmentally friendly power sources, with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2030 and by 80 percent by 2050.

“The main thing for us is that there is a window of time to plan, study and prepare for the zero-emission vehicles that are coming. We are working on a blueprint to electrify the port,” says Katie Sloan, SCE’s director of eMobility. “With the timeframe we have, we will have the infrastructure prepared.”

Meanwhile, there are several other efforts underway at the ports to build more robust electric infrastructure. Several terminals and trucking companies now have stations where electric vehicles can plug in to recharge. Both ports have installed major solar panel arrays on building rooftops and are developing microgrids that could keep power flowing locally, even in the event of an earthquake or other major disaster. (Keeping the ports operating after a disaster could also help the region recover by making it easier for food, medicine and relief supplies to get to disaster victims.)

One significant example of how the ports are preparing for a future without fossil fuels is the Middle Harbor Project at the Port of Long Beach. The first portion of the facility opened in 2016. Nearly all of it is run on electric equipment, and it is largely automated. Human operators, for example, sit in cranes to control the fine movements as the cranes load and unload containers from their ships or onto rail cars, but almost all of the rest of the port’s activities are controlled by computer. The diesel yard trucks that carry containers from the ship side to nearby stacks at most other terminals are gone. In their place are electric carts that are sophisticated enough to detect when their batteries are running low, so they can automatically go to a warehouse to have the battery swapped out. It is the most efficient terminal at the Port of Long Beach, in terms of time trucks have to wait to get in and out with a trailer.

But for now, several factors prevent the ports from using more facilities like the Middle Harbor Project. The cost of building the modern terminal is expected to be $1.5 billion; construction began in 2011 and is expected to be completed sometime next year. The operator of the facility, a subsidiary of the Hong Kong-based Orient Overseas Container Line, agreed to lease it for 40 years. But most leases at the San Pedro ports are for much shorter time frames, usually around 20 years. That gives the operators less time to recoup costs for major investments. Meanwhile, labor unions are wary of the move to automation. The Port of Los Angeles has an automated terminal like Long Beach, but a plan by Denmark’s Moller-Maersk, a major shipping company, to introduce automated features at another of L.A.’s terminals sparked labor protests earlier this year. Longshoremen claimed the company’s goal was to save money on labor costs, not reduce air pollution. Things got so heated that Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti volunteered to mediate the dispute. 

Many factors beyond the control of local officials could determine whether the San Pedro ports are viewed as leaders or outliers on environmental initiatives. 

The ports are under immense outside pressure. There’s increased competition from ports in the eastern United States since the Panama Canal expanded in 2016 to allow larger vessels through. Threats of a trade war with China have wreaked havoc with operations at the San Pedro ports, as importers try to anticipate what tariffs, if any, may soon fall on imported goods. Meanwhile, cargo companies are not just moving to bigger and bigger ships, they’re becoming bigger and bigger themselves through mergers and consolidations. The upheaval has been felt by local truckers, who must contend with new procedures and increased bureaucracy as they haul containers around the Los Angeles Basin.

This larger context is important to the success or failure of the ports’ greenhouse gas goals. After all, the only way trucking companies or terminal operators can afford to buy vehicles with cutting-edge technology is if they’re making enough money to pay for them. 

Jelenić from the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association worries that the new environmental requirements will drive business away from the Los Angeles region. “It makes Los Angeles and Long Beach less competitive, because it increases costs,” he says. 

But Cannon, the environmental manager from the Port of Los Angeles, says the ports are well aware of the competing pressures. “We have to design our programs in a way that meets the needs of the environment,” he says, “without sacrificing the needs of our port as a competitive business.”

Dan is Governing’s transportation and infrastructure reporter.
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