Hydrogen Fuel Is Gaining Traction With Truckers

Some operators say it allows trucks to drive farther and faster, but the technology is far behind development of battery-cell electric vehicles

Jim Gillis is making a big bet on hydrogen-powered big rigs.

Gillis, president of the Pacific region for Collierville, Tenn.-based IMC, will take delivery in the coming weeks of his first hydrogen electric fuel-cell Nikola trucks long before the technology is proven and a refueling network is set up.

“I am always worried about first-generation technology,” said Gillis, who expects to be running 50 of the sleek rigs by the end of 2024. “As fancy as it all looks, I know going into it that we are going to have some problems.”

The company is among many looking to overhaul their fleets to meet impending requirements for zero-emissions commercial trucks in California.


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Many of those truckers are focused on battery-cell rigs that essentially bulk up electric-vehicle technology from the passenger-car industry for 18-wheelers. Hydrogen is gaining a following, however, among some heavy-duty truck operators who see it as the industry’s best path toward zero-emission technology, especially for rigs traveling long distances.

Hydrogen offers longer trips and faster refueling than battery-cell technology, supporters say, while allowing trucks to haul heavier loads because they aren’t carrying industrial-scale batteries.

But the development of hydrogen vehicle technology and fueling infrastructure remain years behind battery-electric trucks and regulatory demands are bearing down on the carriers.

California is requiring that beginning Jan. 1, new trucks calling at the state’s seaports be zero-emission vehicles. The state is also requiring that a growing share of truck sales and fleets in the state run on clean fuels, with a goal of phasing out diesel big rigs over the next two decades.

Those are the toughest rules in the country hitting diesel trucks, and industry experts say similar mandates in other states are likely to follow as regulators watch California’s rollout.

The regulations have triggered a run on diesel rigs as carriers add to their fleets ahead of the Jan. 1 bar against new diesel trucks at ports. Truckers are also buying zero-emission vehicles, an expensive undertaking that is backed by state and local grants.

Battery-electric and hydrogen fuel-cell big rigs start at about $450,000, triple the cost of a diesel truck. Truckers say they are only able to afford the rigs with subsidies from the state of California and local agencies such as the region’s ports. Their purchases depend on the promise that a fueling infrastructure will emerge over the next few years.

Battery-electric big rigs have gotten a head start on hydrogen trucks. More than a dozen companies in California are already delivering freight using battery-electric heavy-duty trucks, according to the Harbor Trucking Association, which represents truckers operating at the state’s big ports.

Hydrogen-powered trucks are only just starting to trickle into California and hydrogen-fueling stations are years behind their battery-electric peers. “We’re still in kind of this beta-testing mode,” said Matt Schrap, chief executive of the Harbor Trucking Association. “Outside of Nikola, you’re just not seeing large commercial deployment in North America.”

Truckers say battery-electric trucks are good for short trips ferrying shipping containers between ports, rail yards and warehouses. But they are finding the trucks less useful for longer trips of 100 miles or more because of the limited range of batteries and the hours it takes to recharge.

Battery-electric heavy-duty trucks today can travel about 300 miles and take at least several hours to recharge. Some truckers say they are barely getting more than 150 miles out of the trucks between charges.

Hydrogen trucks have a range of up to 500 miles and refueling takes about 30 minutes. The fuel-cell trucks are also several thousand pounds lighter than battery-electric rigs, allowing truckers to haul heavier, revenue-generating loads.

Nikola is the front-runner so far in the hydrogen-truck field, but traditional manufacturers including Kenworth, Hyundai Motor and Volvo Trucks are also developing hydrogen fuel-cell big rigs.

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