Saturday, July 13, 2024

Hydrogen’s newsy week skips over underlying  challenges

News releases this week about Nikola’s fourth energy division president in less than two years, the company’s first Hyla-branded modular hydrogen fueler for fuel cell trucks, and Hyzon Motors’ development agreement for fuel cell refuse trucks skirted some underlying issues.

Nikola touted the ability to serve up to 40 Class 8 trucks a day with about 50 kilograms of hydrogen. It’s enough to get a zero-emissions truck from Southern to Northern California — about 400 miles depending on the destination. 

At the Port of Oakland, First Element Fuels (FEF) — which counts Nikola as a customer —  offers heavy-duty hydrogen fill-ups to make round trips possible. FEF primarily focuses on fuel cell passenger cars, which need far less fuel than a heavy-duty tractor. 

Nikola’s Hyla-branded hydrogen modular refueler in Ontario, California. (Photo: Nikola)

FEF expected 50,000 passenger vehicles — mostly Toyota Mirais and Hyundai Nexos — using OEM-prepaid fuel cards at its 85 hydrogen dispensers at 40 locations in California. Instead its total addressable market today is closer to 15,000 passenger vehicles.

Pivoting to truck charging kick-starts an infrastructure for the nascent transportation choice. Hyundai’s test fleet of 30 Xcient fuel cell trucks at the Port of Oakland refuels at the FEF station. While no longer a science experiment, hydrogen fuel cells are rife with challenges.

Pricing and maintenance questions

The price of hydrogen is a big hurdle. At up to $36 a kilogram — more than double its historic range of $14-$16kg — filling a truck could run $1,800. At current diesel prices around $4 a gallon, a fill-up is about a third of that.

No matter how much a fleet wants to improve sustainable trucking by substituting a fuel cell for a diesel-powered engine, no fuel surcharge comes close to making up for such an outlay.

Nikola enacted a hydrogen fuel cell truck fill up in this video announcing its first modular fueling station. (Video courtesy of Nikola)

In telling customers of the increase in August, FEF, branded as True Zero, blamed cost pressure on the hydrogen supply chain and low carbon credit values compared to historical levels. Nikola wouldn’t discuss current pricing other than to suggest some customer-specific fuel discounts.

It plans a total of nine Hyla outlets by midyear. They will be a combination of modular and permanent stations, customer-owned facilities, and partnerships with public truck stops.

Then, there are questions about reliability. According to reporting in CleanTechnica by Michael Barnard, a climate futurist, strategist and author — and hydrogen critic — fuel cells cost more to maintain than battery-electric vehicles. He cited studies showing about 80% up time for fuel cell buses, the first large vehicles to use them as far back as the beginning of the century. 

Most fleets shy away from from fuel cells

That makes fuel cell trucks a nonstarter for fleets. Many already shy away because of the $450,000 upfront cost of a Nikola Tre FCEV. And that price covers just the truck — no fuel or maintenance as Nikola once planned to offer in a package for a single monthly price. 

California offers enormous incentives for fuel cell trucks — for now. Some fleets are trying them, mostly in ones and twos. Vouchers assigned to dealers reduce their out-of-pocket risk. Yet many applications for California’s Hybrid and Zero-Emission Truck and Bus Voucher Incentive Project expire before they are used.

About the Nikola station

The Hyla outlet in Ontario, California, does not produce hydrogen on-site. The liquid hydrogen is trucked in by diesel-powered tractors once or twice a day depending on demand.

Using diesel trucks to haul the liquid hydrogen tanks is unavoidable given that the total count of battery-electric Class 8 trucks nationwide is about 1,000 out of a total population of 3.5 million. Nikola’s goal is to use zero-emission vehicles in the future.

Nonetheless, hauling hydrogen by smog-producing diesel diminishes the concept of an environmentally friendly hydrogen ecosystem. Since most hydrogen today is derived from petroleum-based natural gas, its well-to-wheel emissions profile is less than stellar.

Back in 2020, Nikola spent $30 million to purchase five hydrogen-producing electrolyzers from Norway’s Nel ASA. Originally, Nikola planned its first station to be in Arizona. The company negotiated special rates for solar power to make electricity for the electrolyzers. That plan is either shelved or dead because of the company’s persistent money troubles.

Nikola’s revolving door of energy presidents

Nikola struggles keeping leadership for its energy division. Ole Hoefelmann is the latest to occupy the role. The former global head of Hyla’s infrastructure operations succeeded Joe Cappello, who served for less than six months. 

According to Securities and Exchange Commission filings, Nikola paid Cappello slightly more than $1 million and cash for other benefits to leave. Hoefelmann and Cappello both earned a base $600,000 annual salary

Former BP executive Carey Mendes led the energy business until resigning in August. He revealed the Hyla branding in April. His predecessor, Pablo Koziner, served in the role from June 2020. 

Joe Cappello at the Nikola display at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January. He served less than six months as president of the energy division at Nikola. (Photo: Alan Adler/FreightWaves)

Hyzon Motors delivers fuel cell trucks and partners for refuse trucks

Hyzon Motors this week announced a joint development agreement with New Way Trucks to develop fuel cell-powered refuse trucks in North America . It is leveraging lessons from a test program in Australia.

The company delivered four Freightliner Cascadias upfit with its fuel cell system to Performance Food Group in December.

Hyzon CEO Parker Meeks told me he expects hydrogen prices to fall to around $7 per kilogram by the end of 2025. The current inflation, he told me, far exceeds the cost of making and distributing the fuel.

In the Truck Tech debut of “Five minutes with …” Hyzon Motors CEO Parker Meeks discusses his efforts to get Hyzon considered as a truck manufacturer for Inflation Reduction Act incentives despite contracting truck conversions to Fontaine Modifications.

Engine break: OEMs split over EPA’s Phase 3 emissions regulations

Three major powertrain and components suppliers and Ford Motor Co. think it’s time to stop quibbling over the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Phase 3 greenhouse gas regulations.

Cummins Inc., BorgWarner Inc. and Eaton Corp. are ready to meet carbon dioxide (CO2) standards for model-year 2027 heavy-duty vehicles that go beyond the current standards. The EPA also proposed an additional set of CO2 standards for heavy-duty vehicles that would begin to apply in model-year 2028.

The Engine Manufacturers Association (EMA) and a host of trucking OEMs are seeking to push out the start of regulations until 2030 or later.

‘Undermining regulatory certainty’

“This administration should not set the precedent that established standards can be changed from administration to administration, thus completely undermining regulatory certainty and stability and undermining manufacturers’ necessary multi-year investment plans,” EMA President Jed Mandel testified to the EPA last year.

For Cummins, the acceptance of the regulations is wise. It is paying a $1.675 billion federal civil penalty for emission-rigging in about 1 million Ram pickup trucks.

The four companies on Tuesday called for stronger national heavy-duty pollution standards through an informal alliance called the Heavy-Duty Leadership Group.

Cummins and Ford previously split from other EMA members. In 2022, the EMA sued the California Air Resources Board (CARB) over providing insufficient lead time for truck and engine makers to meet new regulations effective this year. 

EMA ultimately cut a deal with CARB that created the Clean Truck Partnership. It includes flexibility for manufacturers to meet emissions requirements while still reaching the state’s emission reduction and climate goals.

From PACT to ACT: Three legacy truck maker executives: John O’Leary, CEO of Daimler Truck North America; Mathias Carlbaum, CEO Of Navistar Inc.; and Peter Voorhoeve, president of Volvo Truck North America, will appear on a panel discussion in May at the Advanced Clean Transportation Expo in Las Vegas. The ACT Expo has become the industry’s premiere event as it transitions to a zero-emissions future. The three appeared in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 30 to promote Powering America’s Commercial Transportation (PACT), a joint effort to lobby for more government help in advancing electric infrastructure. (Photo: PACT)

Briefly noted …

TeraWatt Infrastructure is open for some electric truck charging business in Commerce, California, while it awaits its full 10-megawatt energy load.

ChargePoint data shows an 83% increase in fleet charging sessions and 54% more charging ports in 2023 than a year earlier. 

ZF is investing $500 million in its Gray Court, South Carolina, manufacturing facility to make transmissions for traditional internal combustion engines and electric-mobility technologies for passenger cars and commercial vehicles.

Class 4 electric truck chassis maker Bollinger Motors qualifies for clean vehicle credits of up to $40,000 per truck under the Inflation Reduction Act.

Einride will use five Mercedes-Benz eActros 300 electric trucks to transport 10 truckloads a day of Heineken beer from the Netherlands to Germany.

Einride is making 10 trips a day of emissions-free cross border beer deliveries between the Netherlands and Germany. (Photo: Einride)

Truck Tech No. 53: Carlton Rose on life after UPS and the future of Ree Automotive

Carlton Rose sifted the usable from the unworthy in electric truck offerings during a 43-year career at UPS. Now he chairs Ree Automotive, a high-tech electrification startup.

That’s it for this week. Click here to get Truck Tech via email on Fridays. And catch the latest in major events and hear from the top players on “Truck Tech” at 3 p.m. Wednesdays on the FreightWaves YouTube channel. Thanks for reading and watching. Your feedback and suggestions are always welcome. Write to
Purchase discounted tickets today for the Future of Supply Chain June 4-5 in Atlanta.

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