California port trucking company Total Transportation Services was ahead of its time when it announced plans a decade ago to invest in hydrogen fuel-cell-electric trucks. As part of its commitment to reduce emissions, TTSI in 2011 announced plans to buy up to 100 Tyrano hydrogen fuel cell-electric Class 8 trucks from Vision Motors. But by 2014, Vision had filed for bankruptcy, sunk by the price of the trucks and difficulties in getting hydrogen fuel.
Since then, TTSI has added battery-electric trucks and near-zero natural gas trucks running renewable natural gas to its fleet in pursuit of its goal to eventually operate a 100% zero-emissions fleet.
Now it’s trying hydrogen again. This summer, it was one of three companies to take delivery of some of Kenworth’s first 10 hydrogen-fuel-cell T680 day cabs, developed with Toyota. The trucks can travel 300 miles on one charge of hydrogen.
Kenworth isn’t the only brand of hydrogen fuel cell trucks TTSI will be evaluating. It’s expected to get a Hyzon fuel-cell electric truck for a 30-day trial in the fourth quarter. The truck, built on a 2022 Freightliner Cascadia chassis, is expected to have a range of up to 400 miles.
TTSI also signed a non-binding letter of intent in May to order 100 Nikola Class 8 battery-electric and fuel-cell electric trucks. A trial with two battery-electric and two hydrogen trucks is expected to start in the first half of 2022.
A lot has changed in the 10 years since TTSI tried out those first hydrogen trucks.
Interest in H2 for trucking skyrockets
Fuel cells that use hydrogen to produce clean power have been around for more than 70 years, according to the North American Council for Freight Efficiency. During the last 20 years fuel cells have been increasingly used in buses, and in the last decade the use in cars is growing.
Real progress on fuel cells in commercial trucks, however, is relatively new. At the North American Commercial Vehicle Show in 2019, H2 prototypes and concept trucks were on display not just from flashy startup Nikola, but also from longtime North American brands Kenworth and Cummins, was well as a futuristic H2 concept vehicle from Hyundai. Shortly afterward, Daimler said by the end of the next decade, it would put hydrogen-powered commercial vehicles into full production.
Two years later, we’re starting to see some fuel-cell trucks making their way onto test tracks and into a handful of fleets.
Much of the development push is coming from Europe, where governments are using a carrot-and-stick approach to reaching zero-emissions goals. Stringent regulations are accompanied by government incentives and research funds.
Daimler Truck, Iveco, Shell, and the Volvo Group have come together in a project called H2Accelerate to help create the conditions for the mass-market roll-out of hydrogen trucks in Europe. But they emphasize support from the public sector will be required.
Daimler and Volvo are also collaborating in a joint venture called cellcentric to advance the technology and production of the fuel-cell systems. The joint venture plans to build one of Europe’s largest series production facilities for fuel-cell systems, with operations slated to begin in 2025.
In North America, most of the action on fuel-cell trucks is happening in California and in Canada — areas that, like Europe, are pushing hard to reduce emissions. Several companies are testing fuel-cell-electric trucks in fleet service on the West Coast, or will be soon, including Kenworth, Hyundai, Hyzon, and Nikola. Navistar, working with GM, plans to have test versions of a fuel-cell-electric International RH Series begin a pilot phase with J.B. Hunt by the end of 2022.
While Volvo Trucks North America and Daimler Trucks North America are currently focusing on battery-electric trucks, there’s potential in the future for their European-based parent companies to bring fuel-cell-electric tech to the U.S.
The second State of Sustainable Fleets report by clean technology consulting firm Gladstein, Neandross & Associates pointed out that while fuel-cell-electric technology remains expensive and available in only very limited production, the number of models announced for transit and over-the-road markets has doubled in the past year.
“New investment commitments and partnerships by OEMs, fuel suppliers, component manufacturers, and infrastructure developers continue to build the foundation for FCEVs,” the firm concluded.
Fuel cells or batteries?
Clearly, the development and adoption curve for fuel-cell trucks will lag behind that of battery-electric models, many of which recently became commercially available.
There are differing opinions about the place of hydrogen fuel-cell trucks in trucking. Jim Meil, ACT Research analyst, calls the topic “a sort of a third rail.”
“We’re perhaps not as enthused as some of the hydrogen fuel cell advocates,” Meil says. “It is possible that fuel cells could be economically viable, but we see a big mountain to climb in the next 10 to 15 years.”
Meil’s comments refer to ACT’s 2021 report, Charging Forward: 2020-2040 BEV & FCEV Forecast & Analysis. It concludes that battery technology is evolving quickly and costs are dropping, making battery-electric trucks a viable competitive alternative to diesel in some applications already.
That’s not true of fuel-cell technology, he says. It’s not only the development of the vehicles, but also the cost of the powertrain and of the hydrogen manufacturing and distribution infrastructure needed.
“It’s difficult for us to envision how those costs can come down enough in order to make up for the head start that battery-powered vehicles have,” he says.
He adds: “One of the reasons [fuel-cell electric] is viable in Europe is there are significant subsidies. If another party’s willing to pick up the cost, a lot of magic can happen.”
Another company that’s not so sure fuel-cell trucks will soon out-compete battery-electric is Traton, parent company of Navistar, Scania, MAN, and other brands.
Traton CEO Matthias Gründler recently emphasized the company’s commitment to battery-electric powertrain development, touting its advantages over fuel cells.
“Batteries will soon have the edge [over conventional powertrains] in virtually all applications. Even compared to fuel cells,” he said. “For the foreseeable future,
battery-powered vehicles will be cheaper – especially in terms of their energy costs. Plus, three-quarters of the output energy is used to power the drive. For hydrogen-powered vehicles, it is only a quarter.”
Competitor Daimler Truck, however, believes fuel-cell trucks are a must to get to the scale needed for true zero-emissions transport.
Daimler Truck chief Martin Daum explains that battery-electric trucks and their charging infrastructure are relatively easy to deploy in small quantities. If you have 1,000 trucks, battery-electric charging is easy, he says. “If you have 100,000, it’s really expensive — and we have 4 million [trucks to decarbonize] in Europe alone,” he says.
In contrast, he says, hydrogen fueling infrastructure benefits from scale. It doesn’t really start getting economically viable until you have 100,000 trucks, he says, and “4 million is a piece of cake. So, we start with electric, and then fuel cell.”
On top of that, he says, “the electric grid can only support the charging of electric trucks up to a point. Transportation will need a second energy source, and this is where hydrogen comes in.”
The big advantage of fuel-cell trucks for long-haul operations is that they have a higher energy density. Andreas Gorbach, Daimler head of truck technology, explains that to increase range, battery-electric trucks need more and more batteries. Fuel-cell trucks, however, can increase range by simply increasing the size of the fuel tank.
“It is impressive how battery-electric has developed in the past year, in ways we didn’t anticipate, and it will continue to,” Gorbach says. “Yet there are limitations, including the elements that are available on this planet.”
Daimler believes it will be able to make a hydrogen-fuel-cell truck cheaper than a battery-powered truck, thanks to its new cellcentric partnership with Volvo, which lessens development costs by adding scale.
As you might imagine based on that partnership, Volvo also believes in a fuel-cell future — along with battery-electric vehicles, and biofuel- or hydrogen-powered internal combustion engines, depending on the application.
Volvo Group Chief Technology Officer Lars Stenqvist believes battery- electric power will be likely dominate the lower cargo weight classes in smaller trucks over shorter distances, while fuel-cell power will do the heavy lifting in long-haul applications.
“We think it would be beneficial if not everyone is running on battery-electric vehicles,” he says. “It will be helpful to have a combination of charging points for battery electric vehicles and hydrogen refueling stations, because otherwise it will put enormous pressure on the electrical grid.”
He predicts most of the vehicles sold beyond 2040 will be battery-electric and fuel-cell electric vehicles.
“We are convinced that those two technologies will out-compete each other in different applications,” Stenqvist says. “We think that the “sweet spot” for the two technologies is a little bit different.”
The truth is, “It is too early to tell,” as Michael McDonald, senior director of sustainability and government affairs for UPS, said in the GNA State of Sustainable Fleets report. “As we move toward battery-electric vehicles as a zero-emissions solution, we are also operating a fuel-cell electric vehicle in our fleet to see if we can draw comparisons on performance, reliability, and cost.”
The challenge for hydrogen-electric trucks, even more so than for battery-electric, is the fueling infrastructure — not only the production and distribution of the fuel itself, but also making it more environmentally friendly with cleaner production processes using renewable energy.
Major truck makers in Europe, for instance, have called for 300 high-performance hydrogen refueling stations for heavy-duty vehicles by 2025 and 1,000 no later than 2030.
“There are massive investments needed by the energy companies,” says Daimler’s Daum. “But once they are done, they will scale easily, supporting hundreds of thousands of trucks and ultimately millions.”
Big oil companies such as BP, Chevron, and Shell are pursuing multimillion-dollar green-hydrogen projects, and there are both existing and new hydrogen producers in the picture, as well.
Nikola’s energy division and TravelCenters of America plan to install hydrogen fueling stations at two TA-Petro sites in California by early 2023.
Air Products, a global industrial gases company and hydrogen producer, is teaming up with Cummins to help accelerate the overall growth of hydrogen fuel cell trucks in the Americas, Europe and Asia. Part of the deal is to work to increase the accessibility of renewable hydrogen, including hydrogen infrastructure.
There’s also an effort to produce the fuel closer to where it will be used. Today in the U.S., most hydrogen is produced in centralized locations and transported long distances to the consumer.
According to BayoTech, a hydrogen supplier that offers localized production, transport, storage and fueling solutions, due to hydrogen’s low energy density, the centralized model presents challenges. Those include high infrastructure and transportation costs and the emissions generated by the trucks doing the transport.
Hyzon also advocates localized hydrogen production models.
“You get away from the very challenging nature of hydrogen, which is transporting it to where it needs to be used,” says Hyzon CEO Craig Knight. “If you make the hydrogen somewhere close to the point of consumption, then your cost structure around dispensing is not unreasonable.”
Through a joint venture with renewable fuel company Raven SR, Hyzon plans to build up to 100 hydrogen production hubs globally that will turn organic waste into locally produced, renewable hydrogen, with the first facility expected next year in California.
Nikola, too, has plans to use renewable power, such as solar, for onsite production of green hydrogen via electrolysis.
Fleets surveyed by Gladstein, Neandross & Associates in its State of Sustainable Fleets report were not waiting around for public hydrogen fueling stations. More than half of FCEV users surveyed have already piloted or purchased their own hydrogen fueling infrastructure.
Not surprising when you recall that one of the reasons TTSI’s first effort to adopt hydrogen-electric trucks a decade ago failed was the difficulty in obtaining fuel. This time, the Kenworth trucks it’s testing are part of the new Shore to Shore project at the Port of Los Angeles, which features two Shell high-capacity hydrogen fueling stations.