The annual Consumer Electronic Show offers a massive showcase for the biggest news in tech. But this year’s products weren’t limited to LG’s transparent television screen. A Class 8 truck enjoyed its own time in the spotlight as it bobtailed down streets around the Las Vegas Convention Center.
The Class 8 Nikola Tre offered a real-world demonstration of hydrogen fuel cells. And Nikola wasn’t the only business raising hydrogen hopes. Paccar returned to the show with its Kenworth T680 powered by Toyota fuel cells. Hyundai, meanwhile, unveiled a new HTWO brand for its hydrogen fuel cell business.
“I haven’t seen this much activity around hydrogen in quite some time,” Nikola CEO Steve Girsky told TruckNews.com. “The technology is at a tipping point.”
Nikola has now wholesaled 35 of its fuel-cell-electric cabovers and even delivered a handful to Canada, securing Toronto-headquartered ITD as its first dealership on this side of the border.
Canada a ‘hydrogen-friendly’ jurisdiction
“The Canadian government seems very hydrogen-friendly,” Girsky added, referring to the view of hydrogen as a zero-emission option, as well as the extensive natural gas deposits that can be used to produce the fuel.
When the federal government announced $2.3 million for the Alberta Zero-Emissions Truck Electrification Collaboration (AZETEC) in 2021, Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan Jr. proclaimed “hydrogen’s moment has come, and Canada is leading the way.” Since then, B.C. has committed $16.5 million in a pilot program that will explore hydrogen as a fuel for commercial trucking.
While eliminating tailpipe emissions, draining no more than some water, fuel-cell-electric trucks also promise to haul heavier weights over longer distances when compared to battery-electric models. A fully fueled Nikola Tre can travel about 800 km on hydrogen, compared to the 475-km range of its battery-electric counterpart.
“We’re going to be first,” Girsky said of the race to secure fuel-cell-electric users. “And we’re going to keep our foot on the pedal.”
Establishing hydrogen fueling infrastructure
The race involves more than building trucks alone, of course. Related fueling infrastructure will be equally as important. For that, Nikola is preparing to roll out its own modular fueling stations under the Hyla brand.
“We’re going to use modular stations as a method to build up demand in certain areas, aggregate that demand up to a level where the investment in a heavy-duty station is much more de-risked,” Nikola Energy president Joseph Cappello said.
Once a modular station is serving 100-150 trucks, truck stop operators are expected to show more interest in investing the required US$10-20 million for a permanent facility.
“The permanent station is going to be much more efficient. The customer experience will be more like they’re used to,” Cappello said. “Our job is to get it there as fast as possible.”
Hyla and FirstElement Fuel have partnered on a fueling station at the Port of Oakland, which will initially accommodate at least 100 trucks. A location in Ontario, Calif., meanwhile, is to expand to 50 vehicles per day.
“We have line of sight on a half a dozen more locations to put in place in the coming months,” Cappello added.
Grey and green hydrogen
Much of the hydrogen provided to early stations will be “grey” rather than the “green” variety produced using options like solar or wind power. But the supply of grey hydrogen will gradually shift to “blue” options once suppliers add carbon capture and storage into their production processes, he said.
Cappello also sees Canada as a particularly viable market because of its approach to emissions.
“I feel as if the Canadian regulatory environment is a little bit more pragmatic about the pace at which it can actually get done,” he explained. “I’d say the Canadian market can probably grow faster than in a number of pockets … in the U.S.”
But U.S. markets like California, the Pacific Northwest, Arizona and Texas are evolving in their own right, building on a federal promise to establish seven hydrogen hubs around the country, increasing the density of projects over the next decade.
“Transportation will play a big role in connecting the hubs,” he said. Over time, that will evolve into pipelines. It just won’t happen overnight. “This is going to be a long-time story.”
The modular stations are meant to help decarbonize fleets on much shorter timelines, and they’ll even support equipment from competing truck makers.
“We think of this as a hydrogen community,” Cappello explained. Companies such as Daimler and Volvo, working together on fuel cells under the cellcentric joint venture, will undeniably be chasing some of the same truck buyers. But the Hyla brand is being established to serve them all.
“It’s about getting the ecosystem sustainable, launched, successful, and there’s a lot of collaboration on the infrastructure side,” he said.
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