One of the drawbacks of hydrogen adoption as a transportation fuel is the lack of infrastructure. Guess what? A network of hydrogen fueling already exists.
It’s true that what exists is primarily dedicated to material-handling fuel cell-powered forklifts. The majority of those are located at distribution centers and warehouses for retail giants Amazon and Walmart.
But it is not inconceivable that some of those 120 locations where hydrogen is dispensed could form a backbone, or at least contribute, to hydrogen fueling for over-the-road long-haul trucks.
A forklift fills up with a couple of kilograms of hydrogen. A Class 8 truck like a Nikola Tre fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) or a Hyundai Xcient — both coming to market over the next few quarters — needs more like 50 kg to run 500 or more miles.
Plug Power, a company whose name could be confused for a business involved in charging battery-electric vehicles, covers the full hydrogen ecosystem. It generates, liquefies and transports hydrogen. And it doesn’t dismiss the idea.
Doing the math of hydrogen fueling
Each of Plug Power’s fueling stations consists of a 19,000-gallon (4,000-kg) tank that holds enough hydrogen to last 10 days at a typical distribution center.
“What if, instead of 10 days, I refill it every five days?” asked Jose Luis Crespo, Plug Power’s general manager of fuel cell applications and global accounts. “Long-haul trucking is going to require a little bit of a different way of refueling than a forklift. I’m going to have to have a separate dispenser. But the hydrogen is already there.”
Plug Power formed a joint venture called Hyvia with French automaker Renault in 2021. Its 30-kW fuel cells power Renault’s Master H2-Tech portfolio of vans, cabs and buses.
Hydrogen could supplant electric grid
The Latham, New York-based company makes a heavy-duty 125-kW fuel cell and would love to partner with a truck maker. It is less interested in just selling the fuel cell, but doesn’t rule it out.
If its U.S. distribution network — expected to exceed 200 customer locations by the end of the year — adds a product beyond forklifts, it might be Hyvia-like vehicles. Because their energy efficiency is far less than batteries, fuel cells are ideally suited to heavier vehicles.
But Plug Power thinks hydrogen is fine for light vehicles, especially in areas where the electric grid is insufficient to support battery-powered vehicles like last-mile delivery near urban centers.
“Having hydrogen available all over the U.S. would allow you to be able to refuel vehicles that go from distribution center to distribution center,” Crespo said.
Plug Power has a contract with Nikola to provide a minimum of 100 metric tons of hydrogen per day from its network for the Class 8 Tre FCEVs expected in the fourth quarter. In exchange, Plug Power would purchase up to 75 Tre FCEVs over the next three years to haul liquefied hydrogen.
Hydrogen rising but not ubiquitous
Crespo cautions that just because hydrogen is the most common element in the universe, it doesn’t mean the supply is unlimited. But like hydrogen itself that shoots skyward when released in the atmosphere, its production is on the rise.
A key portion of the $13 billion earmarked for hydrogen in the Inflation Reduction Act is a 10-year, $3-per-kilogram production credit for making zero-carbon green hydrogen. That typically happens by splitting water and hydrogen in a process called electrolysis. An electrolyzer is effectively the opposite of a fuel cell, which chemically converts hydrogen and oxygen into electricity. The bill of material for both has a lot in common.
Electrolysis takes a lot of energy. But the incentive for producing hydrogen this way makes it cost competitive with dirtier methods like splitting hydrogen from natural gas.
“When you produce electrolyzers, then your market grows when there is an incentive to produce hydrogen,” Crespo told me. “The IRA puts a lot of money behind hydrogen. And when you put so much money behind a technology, usually it goes forward.”
The Amazon factor
Plug Power has a $2 billion contract to supply Amazon with 30 tons of hydrogen a day beginning in 2025. It currently provides 15 tons a day. Amazon is an investor in Plug Power and could purchase up to 23% of the company’s stock through a warrant it received when it signed the most recent supply agreement last year.
The retailer took a similar approach with renewable natural gas supplier Clean Energy, electric truck maker Rivian and autonomous truck software developer Plus.
“Amazon believes that this market is going somewhere,” Crespo said. “This is a way for them to participate. The largest company in the world says hydrogen is a technology that it believes in and is invested in and wants to be our partner to develop it. They are good partners.”
Autonomous trucking industry pushes back in California
It is still early days in the move to ban autonomous trucks without safety drivers in California, a push backed by the state’s labor unions.
A who’s who in the autonomous vehicle space lined up behind stopping Assembly Bill 316. A hearing was held Wednesday before the California State Assembly Committee on Communications and Conveyance.
“Prohibiting the operation of heavy-duty AVs unless a human operator is physically present in the vehicle is effectively a permanent ban on driverless trucks that would undermine California’s regulatory process, block Californians from accessing the benefits of autonomous trucking technology, and further set back the state on this critical innovation,” the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association said in a letter released before the hearing.
California is the most significant holdout among the eight states that disallow autonomous trucks. Its location is key to allowing robot trucks to connect with Southwest states like Arizona, New Mexico and Texas that are friendly to the concept.
Briefly noted …
Swedish truck maker Scania and battery producer Northvolt said this week they had developed an electric battery with a lifetime equivalent to that of a truck. More in this Reuters report.
Walmart is taking the first of five Cummins 15-liter compressed natural gas engine-powered trucks on an inaugural trip from Indiana to California, making pit stops along the way to refuel at Chevron stations.
Canada’s Lion Electric Co. has inaugurated its new 175,000-square-foot manufacturing plant to make lithium-ion batteries in Mirabel, Quebec. It will power electric vehicles assembled by Lion at its Saint-Jérôme, Quebec, and Joliet, Illinois, manufacturing plants.
Questions around how to insure autonomous vehicles are still far more prevalent than answers. It is more than the ethical issues. Will it be profitable for insurers?
Utah PaperBox, a 109-year-old family-owned business, has delivered paper products in the Salt Lake City region for five generations. It is Utah’s first company to invest in a zero-tailpipe emission Volvo VNR Electric truck.
Lordstown Motors is back to producing its Endurance electric pickup truck after taking a hiatus to resolve quality issues. It has signed a deal for maintenance of the trucks with Amerit Fleet Solutions for service and warranty.
Kodiak Robotics is teaming with C.R. England to autonomously haul its first reefer loads of “protein products” for Tyson Foods. Kodiak is dedicating one truck to the pilot, which will operate between San Antonio and Dallas. Yes, frozen chicken nuggets are included.
That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading. Click here to get Truck Tech via email on Fridays. And tune into Truck Tech on FreightWavesTV on Wednesdays at 4 p.m. EDT.
Next week’s scheduled guests are Thomas Healy, CEO of Hyliion Holdings, and Parker Meeks, CEO of Hyzon Motors. The two companies are working together on a pilot hydrogen-powered fuel cell version of Hyliion’s Hypertruck ERX.