In June, the CEO of German manufacturer MAN Truck & Bus SE (MAN), Alexander Vlaskamp, told Austrian Newspaper Der Standard that:“E-mobility is coming now. The technology is mature and most efficient. In our estimation 80 or even 90 percent of logistics trucks will be electrically powered…If hydrogen is to be used, it must be green. And we see today that hydrogen is far too expensive (and) therefore, hydrogen will only be used in a small segment in Europe, such as for special transport.”
I became aware of this pronouncement through a friend in the U.S. trucking industry, who attached the article to an e-mail, saying, “So, hydrogen is dead!” Even as someone who has never been afraid to hold strong opinions on technology, I remember reading my friend's e-mail and thinking, “Well, that’s a bit extreme isn’t it?” Then I took some time to read Mr. Vlaskamp’s full interview and, in fairness, what he said is nuanced. He is not saying all hydrogen is too expensive or that the technology doesn’t work. He is simply pointing out that the cost of ‘green’ hydrogen as a fuel is too high for his customers to do their business.
Fair enough, Vlaskamp knows his customers, and trucking has and will always be a bottom-line driven industry. However, he goes on to state that there is already enough electricity in Austria to deal with the trucking fleet transition, and that to support the 30 percent of trucks in Europe going electric by 2030, 20,000 fast-charging stations will be needed, at a cost of several billion euros! This is where he loses me and quite a few others, as we will see below.
Here in the U.S., as the battle over the California Air Resources Board (CARB) Advanced Clean Fleets (ACF) regulation spills over into Congress, companies and truckers are faced with impossible choices. Do they wait to see if the bills introduced by Rep. John Joyce (R-PA) in the House of Representatives and/or Sen. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK) in the Senate, forestall CARB’s rule, or do they start to plan for the zero-emission future now? They haven’t got much time to figure it out; CARB’s rule goes into effect for the first trucks in 2024. One thing is certain: Europe’s second-largest truck manufacturer muddying the waters regarding technology choices won’t help anyone! To try and make sense of whether hydrogen is an option for U.S. trucking, I decided to talk to three experts in the field.
Batteries Can't Do It All
Dr. Tim Lipman is an energy and environmental technology, economics, policy researcher and lecturer with the University of California, Berkeley. His research focuses on electric-drive vehicles, fuel-cell technology, combined heat and power systems, biofuels, renewable energy, and hydrogen-energy systems infrastructure. When I spoke to Tim about the MAN CEO’s thoughts on hydrogen and electric trucks, he had this to say: “Batteries can’t do it all, that is for certain, and I think everyone is underestimating the level of effort needed to get the grid ready for transportation electrification.” He pointed to the fact that fast-charging infrastructure for trucks might require megawatts of power, and whether that power is drawn directly from the grid or from on-site battery storage, it will not be cheap. He also stated that the engineering and technology challenges for charging sites could be significant, given the geographic locations of California’s truck parking sites relative to the grid, the anticipated load growth from truck charging, and the capacity of certain electrical feeder lines. Tim believes these challenges and their costs have already made several public bus fleets (subject to a separate CARB zero- emission rule) reverse course on battery-electric buses in favor of hydrogen fuel cell electric buses.
Hydrogen Cost Will Come Down
On the costs of hydrogen, currently retailing somewhere between $16 to $36 per kg, Dr. Lipman was very clear that it is too high. He points to the war in Ukraine, and the entry of California refiners into the low-carbon fuel standard (LCFS) credits program, as being significant contributors to the current cost issue. The Ukraine war has caused the costs of natural gas, a raw material for the steam reformation of hydrogen, to rise sharply; and the conversion of some California refineries to renewable fuels has halved the payments available for LCSF credits from CARB for the sale of hydrogen. However, he believes that the recent announcement of $7 billion in federal grant funding to establish regional clean hydrogen hubs in 16 states will have a big impact on driving down costs. Because of his involvement in California’s successful application to the U.S. Department of Energy for one of these hubs, Tim was reluctant to give his thoughts on how much hydrogen could retail for, simply saying that the hubs will make hydrogen a lot cheaper.
Finally, Tim took some time to explore the comments on ‘green’ hydrogen by MAN’s CEO, noting that it might be more helpful to look at the fuel’s production and carbon intensity. Tim explained that the term ‘green’ hydrogen means production of the gas from the electrolysis of water using renewable electricity. This pathway is preferred by many in the environmental movement, as it dispenses with the steam reformation of methane completely. Hydrogen from any form of methane is viewed by some as a bait and switch strategy by a fossil fuels industry, the currently leading producer of U.S. hydrogen, seeking to extend the use of natural gas.
Low Carbon Hydrogen Production
However, Tim pointed out that other production methods, such as the steam reformation of bio-gas (i.e. methane created from animal manure or wastewater bio-digestors) could be less carbon intensive than ‘green’ hydrogen. This is due to the fact that the releasing of bio-gas directly to the atmosphere has a much more detrimental impact on climate than converting it to hydrogen. Therefore, if we look to carbon intensity and climate impacts as our north star (and don’t get hung up on the hydrogen color wheel), investing in these other low-carbon production methods could increase hydrogen supply and bring down costs significantly. This certainly would change the economics of the fuel dramatically for Mr. Vlaskamp and his customers.
I also spoke with Dr. Matt Miyasato, Vice President of Strategic Growth and Government Affairs for FirstElement Fuel, the largest retailer of hydrogen fuel stations in the world. Prior to joining FirstElement Fuel, Matt served as Deputy Executive Officer and Chief Technologist at the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Matt was taken aback by the MAN CEO’s comments, stating: “This is really premature! There is no silver bullet, and we are going to need all the solutions.” Matt went on to say that electricity is a great solution for fleets traveling shorter routes (up to 40 miles), with fixed hubs that are well supplied with electricity and a duty cycle that allows for overnight charging. However, he too cautioned regarding the ability to install the charging infrastructure, even in the best of circumstances. He expressed concern with the existing grid infrastructure, the possible need for battery banks to charge multiple vehicles, the huge amount of electricity needed, and the rate at which vehicles can charge. In fact, Dr. Miyasato’s main objection to Mr. Vlaskamp’s comments was that they totally discounted the needs of many drivers and fleets. For some truckers, the time required to recharge batteries is simply not practical or cost effective. Time is money in the trucking business, and extensive wait times to recharge trucks won’t cut it.
Consider All Technologies/Fuels
That’s not to say that the hydrogen infrastructure is perfect. Matt did own up to issues related to the cost of the fuel and the ability to permit, roll out, and maintain stations. However, he also noted that no one had yet built an electrical retail infrastructure for long-distance truck routes (those over 200 miles), whereas his company planned to launch their first truck fueling station in Oakland, California, in December 2023. He said, “With what we know today about costs and engineering, it would be very short-sighted to write off any technology path at this point.”
Finally, I spoke with Jaimie Levin, Director of West Coast Operations and Senior Managing Consultant for the Atlanta-based Center for Transportation and the Environment (CTE). Jaimie previously worked as Director of Environmental Technology at the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District (AC Transit) where he oversaw the alternative fuels deployment program. He currently heads up the NorCAL ZERO advanced technology demonstration project, which is bringing 30 Hyundai Xcient fuel cell electric trucks into service at the Port of Oakland in northern California. These Class 8 vehicles have a range of between 400 and 500 miles and a payload capacity of 39,000 lbs. This project is in the road trials phase, with 10 trucks currently deployed hauling steel from the port to California’s Central Valley.
Critical Factors for Truckers
Jaimie stated that the current crop of Class 8 battery-electric trucks, while working fine in the hub model described by Dr. Miyasato, were “really working against what truckers need.” He cited four critical factors for truckers – range, payload capacity, fueling speed, and resiliency. On range, Jaimie states that trucks with variable routes can’t have limits. They need to be able to do whatever route and distance are required by a job. On payload, he cited the total weight limits on the California and national highway system as being a serious issue for battery-electric trucks. The weight of current battery trucks that can travel 250 miles could be as much as 2,000 lbs. more than their diesel counterparts. In an industry where payload is ‘the’ thing, that would reduce carrying capacity and profit. On fueling speed, Jaimie stated that truckers can’t wait around for an hour for their rig to charge up. Costs and deadlines simply won’t allow it. Lastly, on resiliency, he talked about the strain put on California’s grid in the last few years by wildfires, extreme heat, and public safety power shutoff events. He notes that in trucking, you can’t have uncertainty on whether you can refuel your vehicle or not. An excellent point, considering that 77 percent of California communities rely solely on trucking for the movement of their goods.On the cost of fuel, Jaimie reiterated that it needs to come down, citing the same factors previously noted, and hopes that the hydrogen hubs will impact prices. On the cost of the trucks themselves, he believes that the economies of scale will have a big impact on driving down the total cost of ownership, making them comparable to diesel, but agrees that the initial cost of the truck itself will remain high.
I have spent some time looking at the future of battery technology – including lighter weight and faster charging options - and I discussed this with all three experts. While they see the new offerings as solving some issues with current battery trucks, they believe that they do not move the needle on power availability and the cost of infrastructure to charge electric trucks.
Hydrogen is far from done in terms of being a fuel for heavy-duty trucks, but its cost needs to come down quickly! Also, issues with the electric infrastructure and the location of California’s truck parking will hinder the rollout of battery-electric vehicles. This means neither technology is perfect and neither meets the needs of every trucking duty cycle. So, rather than trying to pick the winner in this technology horse race, truckers will need to explore their options based on their own unique locations and business needs. This won’t be easy but eliminating technologies out of hand makes no sense at this point.
Damian Breen is the founder of Environmental Communication Strategies and former Deputy Executive Officer of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District in California.