Take a Deep Dive Into Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles

Original equipment manufacturers are advancing zero-emission vehicle technology, including hydrogen fuel cells, as they react to increasing regulatory demands for new technology. Hydrogen fuel cells hold promise as they enable an electric vehicle that doesn’t have to plug in for its energy.
Take a Deep Dive Into Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles

Original equipment manufacturers are advancing zero-emission vehicle technology, including hydrogen fuel cells, as they react to increasing regulatory demands for new technology. Hydrogen fuel cells hold promise as they enable an electric vehicle that doesn’t have to plug in for its energy.

With hydrogen fuel cells, the fuel cell translates chemical energy stored in the hydrogen molecule into electricity, which then powers the vehicle motors and batteries. In essence, the fuel cell is the “engine,” but it does not burn the hydrogen like an internal combustion engine burns diesel fuel.

Instead, it electrochemically converts the hydrogen into electricity and water, according to the North American Council for Freight Efficiency’s report Making Sense of Hydrogen Fuel Cell Tractors.

Essentially, a hydrogen fuel cell truck is a hybrid electric vehicle, sharing many of the components and operations of a pure battery electric vehicle, NACFE reported. Hydrogen is the fuel of choice for fuel cells, although there are other alternatives that can operate in fuel cells, such as ammonia.

Hydrogen is competing with a range of alternatives, said Rick Mihelic, director of emerging technologies for NACFE. “The future, what NACFE calls the messy middle, will likely see many of them in use, even by the same fleets,” he said. “You see this today at some locations where there are truck diesel islands sharing the property with a truck CNG station, and on the other side for cars is a range of gasoline products, a propane tank in the corner and possible EV car charging stations.”

Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) are of interest to fleets as they provide fleets with the transformational ability to transport goods and people without tailpipe emissions while offering excellent acceleration and efficiency, extended driving range, and fueling times that can be comparable to gasoline and diesel fleet vehicles, according to the 2020 State of Sustainable Fuels report produced by Gladstein, Neandross and Associates. “However, FCEVs are behind battery electric vehicles in terms of commercial and technological maturity for fleets, largely due to the incremental costs and logistics of using hydrogen as a transportation fuel,” the report said.

Ginger Laidlaw, compliance specialist with the NATSO Alternative Fuels Council, expects battery electric vehicles (BEV) and fuel cell electric vehicles using hydrogen to be intertwined within the trucking industry, with different equipment being used for different applications in different regions. “The trucking industry will certainly take time to turnover fleets and invest in new technologies. Innovation will be key, so the technology becomes more economical and efficient,” she said.

Hydrogen fuel cell trucks are starting to see real-world use, and their adoption is being driven by regional or national considerations. “The costs of hydrogen, vehicles and hydrogen production all must come down significantly to make hydrogen economically competitive with alternatives. Industry advocates and researchers are confident that these costs will be reduced through scale and innovation over time,” Mike Roeth, NACFE’s executive director, said within the report.

Hydrogen is energy dense and abundant but does not occur naturally. It has to be coaxed out of other materials to be useful, but there are many ways to produce hydrogen, NACFE reported. Hydrogen is produced in bulk in North America today for various end uses in industry, with a small fraction used for automobiles and buses in specific regions.

The production of both electricity and hydrogen will need to increase as demand increases. So will distribution, and that may come from current fuel suppliers, Laidlaw said. “It is my understanding that supply, storage and dispensing can be modified according to space and economics of the fueling location needs,” Laidlaw said. “Supply, for example, can come from a pipeline, road transport or even on-site production using available materials, including natural gas and water.”

Hydrogen can be stored as a liquid or a gas, but there may be special storage construction requirements, Laidlaw said. “Hydrogen may be a more viable option than one might think, and there are opportunities to use some current infrastructure and space to keep up with the pace of demand without investing too much capital,” Laidlaw said.

Mihelic said the nation’s truckstops and travel plazas will play a significant role in expanding zero-emission trucks’ range capability. “Investment in fueling infrastructure will dictate where the trucks can regularly operate with confidence,” he said.

Bob Bolduc, CEO of Pride Stores, said NATSO members are committed to any fuel but want to be part of the distribution system. “We have the property,” he said.

The challenge for existing stations is finding room for everything and figuring out traffic patterns on-site to minimize lost property, Mihelic said. “It may mean less parking space available for trucks. New facilities will need to plan to allocate space for new truck fueling technologies that are just now in development and will be going through probably some years of evolution,” he said.

Trying to service all the fuel types may also mean some fueling islands are idle part of the day because the truck makers and customers just have not built or bought enough vehicles yet. “It takes some time to grow the population for new technology trucks,” Mihelic said.

Pride Stores has a hydrogen facility at the company’s new location in Hartford, Connecticut. The hydrogen fueling facility was a $3 million investment, which Bolduc said was funded with money from the VW settlement. The $2 billion settlement included incentives for clean energy alternatives such as electric cars, ridesharing and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles from several manufacturers, including Tesla Motors Inc. and Toyota Motor Corp.

Bolduc said Toyota teamed up with others and approached Pride Stores about a facility at the Hartford location. “I got in with all the clean energy people in Hartford because I believe in it, and I support it,” he said. “They're paying me rent, and they put up the facility.”

The goal was for Toyota to build cars and build out the fueling infrastructure. In addition to Bolduc’s site, there is a hydrogen fueling station in Rhode Island, but Toyota couldn’t get a fueling facility in Massachusetts. “Without Massachusetts, they decided to stop the deal,” Bolduc said, adding that the facility is not operating now, but he is still receiving rent. “Someday, Massachusetts will get involved, and once that happens, we will see demand.”

States are legislating zero-emission vehicles by specific timelines, which is expected to spur the adoption of electric vehicles. “With more states setting goals of ZEV and more to come, as well as the likelihood of policies that support it, more hydrogen fueling stations will be moving into other parts of the country besides the West Coast,” Laidlaw said.

California enacted regulations in 2020 that require a graduated transition to zero-emissions trucks sold in the state starting in 2024 at 5 percent of the California market and growing to 40 percent in 2032. The governor signed executive order N-79-70 stating that it is a goal that all medium- and heavy-duty trucks be zero-emission by 2045 for all operations where feasible and by 2035 for drayage trucks, NACFE reported.

In July 2020, 15 U.S. states and the District of Columbia signed a memorandum of understanding targeting 100 percent of all new medium-duty and heavy-duty truck sales to be zero-emission vehicles by 2050, with an interim target of 30 percent of new sales by 2030, NACFE said.

Even still, Bolduc said consumers and fleets have to be confident that the fueling infrastructure will be there to support alternative fuels. “Until people feel comfortable that they can fuel up, they aren’t going to buy hydrogen vehicles,” he said. “It is going to take a long time.”

Bolduc said it is also important to remember that the internal combustion engine has become more efficient, and OEMs are continuing to improve on it. “The solution doesn't have to be radically different. It just has to fix what we already have,” he explained. “We have to get away from the image that diesel fuel is dirty.”

Erik Neandross, CEO of Gladstein, Neandross and Associates, said there is incredible momentum and commitment to sustainable fuels and sustainable technologies. Early adopter fleets are completely committed to alternative fuels, Neandross said, with 98 percent saying they plan to continue at the same level or more going forward. “That is kind of surprising because in the early years there were some hiccups along the way, but that hasn’t deterred anyone,” he said while unveiling the State of Sustainable Fuels report.

Nate Springer, director of market development for Gladstein, Neandross and Associates, said he has seen growth across natural gas, propane, batteryelectric vehicles and hydrogen. “Renewable fuels are in demand by fleet owners once they have mastered the underlying technology,” he said.

Current research indicates hydrogen fuel cells operate more efficiently in a steady state, rather than a stop-and-go operation, which requires more battery storage, Laidlaw explained. “This, along with driver shortage, may potentially support the development of autonomous trucks to maximize investment efforts,” she said.

Laidlaw said NATSO will be staying on top of the latest studies and policies in emerging technologies and working through partnerships that promote positive and profitable positions for truckstops and travel plazas. She recommends NATSO members get involved with their local Clean Cities Coalition to stay engaged with what’s happening locally and available funding opportunities. “You may also have the opportunity to connect with local fleets who may be looking to partner for more fueling locations and opportunities,” she said.

Additional Resources

  • Download the North American Council for Freight Efficiency’s hydrogen guidance document, Guidance on Hydrogen Fuels Cell Tractors, as well as its electric truck guidance report series free on its website, https://nacfe.org/.
  • Advanced Clean Technology has information on current trends of emerging fuels in fleets and commercial trucking applications at www.act-news.com.
  • The 2020 State of Sustainable Fuels report as well as panel discussions are available at www.stateofsustainablefleets.com.

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