If hydrogen is to replace diesel, there’s plenty of work to do

Toyota recently published the image above along with information that addresses its plan to test a hydrogen fuel cell truck in California.Toyota recently published the image above along with information that addresses its plan to test a hydrogen fuel cell truck in California.

U.S. coal production has declined in seven of the last eight years, and from 2015 to 2016 four publicly traded U.S. coal companies have declared bankruptcy.

Coal is such a four-letter word that I think Santa got a letter from the EPA telling him to find something else to leave for the naughty list later this month.

This country has tried for years to free itself from the kind of energy you can dig out of the ground but has been incapable of shaking the grip, especially when it comes to fuel.

As recently as 2015, natural gas seemed to be looming like a tidal wave of cleaner burning fuel for trucking. Then diesel bounced around $2.50 per gallon for a year, adding to natural gas’ payback window and taking some of the polish off green energy.

Natural gas still has its place, and fans of its efficiency still run up and down the highways, but CNG and LNG aren’t the buzzwords they once were and seemingly are on the cusp of being replaced by a fuel you can “spell” with two fewer letters – H.

For years Toyota has maintained that hydrogen fuel cell technology could be a zero emission solution across many vehicle types, and the scalability of the fuel has enabled the automaker to explore a semi-trailer truck application for a California-based feasibility study.

Earlier this month, Nikola Motor Company (NMC) gave the world an early Christmas present, unfurling its much-hyped Nikola One tractor and the hydrogen fuel cell that helps keep the truck’s electric drive batteries charged.

The Nikola One utilizes a fully electric drivetrain powered by high-density lithium batteries, but energy is supplied on the go by a hydrogen fuel cell.

The range for a Nikola One, NMC claims, is 800 to 1,200 miles while delivering more than 1,000 horsepower and 2,000 ft. lbs. of torque. If those numbers hold up when an actual truck hits the road, hydrogen will have a buzz of its own.

A heavy-duty truck sized fuel cell vehicle based on the Toyota Mirai, the company claims, creates a potential zero-emission freight transportation solution for the future.

It’s worth noting here that the Mirai is Toyota’s hydrogen fuel cell car and features a 151-horsepower powertrain. Toyota has their work cut out for them in scalability, but that work is already underway.

Toyota already has plans to build hydrogen fuel cell buses this year, putting about 100 of the clean-burning buses into service in Tokyo ahead of the 2020 Olympics. Payback aside, the biggest knock on natural gas has historically been the lack of a nationwide fueling infrastructure.

At 1,043 stations, the public CNG & LNG fueling network isn’t expansive but a hydrogen network is still in an embryonic stage. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, there are currently 31 public hydrogen stations in the U.S., with 28 of them located in the State of California. The other three in are in Massachusetts, Connecticut and South Carolina. There’s almost 2,500 miles between California and South Carolina – more than double Nikola One’s top-end range claims.

Trevor Milton, NMC founder and CEO, says his company plans to solve that by building a network of 364 Nikola hydrogen fueling stations across the U.S. and Canada, with construction set to begin in early 2019.

For reference, once/if the network build out hits 364 locations, there will be almost as many Nikola hydrogen stations as there are Love’s Travel Stops, and it would more than sextuple the current combined number of public and private hydrogen stations in the U.S.

Hydrogen’s sudden pass through the spotlight is helped by the fact these state-of-the-art trucks have some pretty eye-popping styling, but this kind of innovation comes at a cost. A Toyota Mirai stickers for about $57,000 – more than double a base model Camry.

A Nikola One tractor is expected to go for around $400,000.

There are credits and incentives that make both more appealing if reducing your carbon footprint isn’t enough. In Nikola’s case it’s a million miles of free hydrogen and maintenance services included in the lease payment, but it doesn’t change the number on the sticker. Well over a quarter of a million dollars is a tough nut to crack.

The technologies Nikola and Toyota are poised to bring to market are exciting prospects and this space warrants watching in the years ahead, but it’s going to take more than sexy wrapping and a green conscience to displace diesel as the king of the road.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in HWT’s sister publication, Commercial Carrier Journal (ccjdigital.com).