The trucking industry is at a technological crossroads, with a divide emerging between hydrogen-powered and battery-electric trucks. As the industry faces strict emissions regulations, particularly in California, truckers are increasingly turning to hydrogen as a zero-emission solution. Companies such as Nikola and traditional manufacturers are investing in hydrogen technology to overcome infrastructure challenges and meet growing demand.
Many truckers are now shifting their focus towards electric technology for 18-wheelers. However, there is a clear divide between those who favor battery-cell rigs, commonly used in electric cars, and those who see hydrogen as the best solution for zero-emission technology, especially for long-haul trips. Supporters of hydrogen believe it offers advantages such as faster refueling and the ability to carry heavier loads due to not requiring large batteries.
However, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCEVs) and infrastructure are not as developed as battery-electric trucks, and strict regulations are putting pressure on truck operators. Starting from January 1, 2023, California will mandate that trucks visiting the state’s seaports must be zero-emission vehicles. The state also plans to increase the use of clean fuels, with the aim of phasing out diesel over the coming decades. These stringent rules on diesel trucks are among the toughest in the country, and other states may adopt similar regulations based on California’s lead.
The upcoming regulations have led to a surge in diesel truck purchases as carriers seek to expand their fleets before the restrictions come into effect. Truckers are also investing in zero-emission vehicles, although they come at a high cost, almost triple the price of a diesel truck. These purchases are supported by grants from California and local agencies, but they depend on the promise of future infrastructure development.
Battery-electric trucks are already in operation in California, with over a dozen companies using them to transport freight. However, hydrogen-powered trucks are just starting to enter the market in the state, and hydrogen-fueling stations are lagging behind battery-electric infrastructure. China currently has the most extensive hydrogen fuel network, with around 250 stations, while the U.S. only has a little over 50 stations, mostly located in California.
Truckers find battery-electric trucks suitable for short trips between ports, rail yards, and warehouses. However, for longer journeys of 100 miles or more, they consider these trucks less practical due to limited battery range and lengthy recharging times. Currently, battery-electric heavy-duty trucks can travel around 300 miles and take hours to recharge, with some truckers reporting getting just over 150 miles between charges. In contrast, hydrogen trucks have a range of up to 500 miles and can refuel in about 30 minutes. They are also lighter than battery-electric rigs, enabling heavier loads.
While Nikola leads in hydrogen-truck technology, traditional manufacturers such as Kenworth, Hyundai Motor, and Volvo Trucks are also working on developing hydrogen fuel-cell big rigs. In July, Nikola received a $41.9 million grant to build six heavy-duty hydrogen refueling stations across Southern California through its HYLA brand. Nikola has also reached a milestone of sales orders for its hydrogen fuel cell electric trucks, reflecting a growing trend in the industry.
Napa-based trucking firm Biagi Bros recently trialed a hydrogen-powered Nikola truck for two months. According to Gregg Stumbaugh, their corporate equipment director, the extended range and rapid refueling of the hydrogen truck allowed their drivers to accomplish twice the work compared to battery-electric trucks. California’s regulations mandate that 10% of Biagi Bros’ 230-truck fleet must be emission-free by 2027, and Stumbaugh expects most of their zero-emission trucks, including the upcoming 10 Nikola trucks, to run on hydrogen fuel.
Nikola’s CEO, Steve Girsky, aims to establish nine public fueling sites in California by mid-2024, in collaboration with Voltera. They plan to set up 50 Hyla hydrogen-fueling stations across key trucking routes in the next five years, ensuring a supply of hydrogen wherever there are customers.
While hydrogen refueling is faster, it remains expensive due to the limited fuel market. However, as hydrogen becomes more prevalent, its price is expected to decline in the next three years. McKinsey & Company estimates that the total hydrogen production capacity announced by companies will increase by 40% by 2030.
For Tennessee-based IMC, investing in hydrogen trucks is a necessity. The company operates regular round trips of about 300 miles between ports and warehouses, an area where battery-electric vehicles fall short due to range limitations. The adoption of hydrogen-powered trucks in California is still in its early stages, and hydrogen-fueling stations lag significantly behind those supporting battery-electric vehicles. However, recent developments in the hydrogen market indicate that a revolution is unfolding, with hydrogen holding the promise of a sustainable energy transition.