Could hydrogen be the winner of the hydrogen probe vs. electric truck in the UK?

By Harry Morgan, Rethink Energy, abridged by David Waterworth

The UK government has launched a £200million inquiry into the future of its road freight. Over a three-year period, it will seek to understand the economic benefits of hydrogen and electric trucks, as well as the infrastructure needed to decarbonize a sector responsible for around 5% of the country’s total carbon emissions.

From the end of this year, the scheme will run for three years, supporting the UK government’s ambitions to ensure that all new heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) sold in the UK are running on zero emissions by 2040. With an average truck with a lifespan of just under seven years, it would also contribute significantly to the country’s plans to achieve a national goal of net zero emissions by 2050.

“The plan could see hundreds of additional zero-emission heavy-duty trucks deployed across the country and save the industry money, thanks to the overall running costs of green vehicles being cheaper than petrol and diesel equivalents,” he said. said the Ministry of Transport. “More efficient deliveries will, in turn, allow transportation companies to keep freight prices low and protect customers from rising costs.”

He also described the main results of this program as a comparison between battery-electric and hydrogen-powered technologies, with demonstrations to be funded in each.

An open call will be made for manufacturers, energy suppliers and fleet and infrastructure operators to showcase their green technology on UK roads. This builds on six previous feasibility studies by the department, including one from Leyland Trucks which deployed 20 DAF battery-electric heavy-duty trucks for use in public sector organisations.

The debate between hydrogen trucks and electric trucks remains plagued by contradictory assertions and rhetoric on both sides. Just last week, Elon Musk called hydrogen “the dumbest thing I could imagine for energy storage”, while hydrogen truck pioneer Nikola was ridiculed for the misleading claims. of its CEO on the capabilities of its technology. The Fraunhofer Institute released a report earlier this year saying hydrogen was unlikely to play a major role in trucks due to the higher costs involved compared to batteries. But advocates like Hyzon Motors have hit back, saying power grids will struggle to cope with large numbers of loaded HGVs at the same time. Additionally, battery supply chain challenges are already severely limiting the production and adoption of electric vehicles.

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Volkswagen-owned truckmaker Scania has also made a surprising pivot in its hydrogen vision. After dismissing fuel as a way to decarbonize heavy hauling in statements as recent as last year, the company said it would develop “an initial 20 fuel cell electric trucks” with the U.S. fuel cell maker. Cummins fuel and electrolysers as part of the HyTrucks project led by Air Liquide. Contrary to the company’s “commitment to battery electric vehicles” alone, the project aims to put 1,000 hydrogen trucks on the roads of Belgium, the Netherlands and western Germany by 2025. , as well as the required refueling infrastructure.

The issue of using batteries to power future heavy goods vehicles revolves around an essential characteristic: energy density. While we find that “range anxiety” is somewhat met by vehicles entering the market with ranges of nearly 300 miles, as vehicles become heavier this range is limited. To scale with the weight of these vehicles, designers can add more battery units to increase available power, but more cells equals higher cost in already low-profit vehicles.

The bigger a vehicle – and the longer it takes for uninterrupted operation – the more hydrogen has an advantage. The technical performance of electric vehicles begins to deteriorate when it comes to heavy goods vehicles. Hydrogen fuel cells offer a much higher energy storage density than lithium-ion batteries, as well as longer range, reduced weight and a much shorter recharge time.

The Tesla Semi electric truck, for example, is expected to have a battery weight of 4.5 tonnes when it enters the market in 2022 or 2023, giving it an energy density of around 5 MJ per kilogram. Hydrogen gas is more than 100 times more energy dense than a lithium-ion battery. Fuel cell trucks designed by Nikola and Hyzon are likely to deliver at least twice the energy density of battery-powered systems, while seeking to drive down purchase prices by more than 70% over the next decade.

Tesla Semi

Refueling a truck with a 500-mile range can also be done in just 15 minutes in hydrogen models, while refueling times for battery-electric models are more likely to be slower. 6 hour order using existing refueling infrastructure. These advantages, however, will have to compete with the reality that the adoption of hydrogen is much less efficient – ​​in terms of electricity consumption – than battery electric vehicles. The well-to-wheel efficiency of producing green hydrogen and then using it in a fuel cell is only around 35%, dwarfed by the 70-80% seen in battery-powered models.

Models for both vehicle types are now coming to market. Hyzon Motors’ pilot trucks will hit the road from this year, while Hyundai’s XCIENT has already been delivered to customers in Switzerland. In the electric space, we’ve seen versions such as Volvo’s VNR Electric, Kenworth’s Class 8 T68oE and Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz eActros LongHaul. However, freight market logistics routes are quite predictable and infrastructure does not have to be a major barrier to deployment. Fuel cell trucks with longer range can be implemented by fleet operators with fairly sparse fueling stations.

Hydrogen fuel cells are also at a much earlier stage of development than lithium-ion batteries, and with the support we are seeing from governments in Asia and Europe, the cost reduction curve of technology will be more abrupt in the next few years. years than for batteries. Once the cost of fuel cells and liquefaction technology drops, the scalability of hydrogen tanks will lower the cost of ownership.

With the cost of hydrogen and operating subsidies falling, Rethink Energy estimates that parity between fuel cell trucks and fossil-powered trucks will be achieved in terms of cost of ownership by 2026. This will result in a sudden increase in purchases and deliveries before 2035, when we expect 1.5 million fuel cell trucks and buses to deliver goods and transport passengers around the world, before an exponential increase to almost 24, 7 million by 2050.

At this point, hydrogen trucks could account for more than 80% of new unit sales, due to logistics companies’ response to investor pressure around climate change. This will be complemented by an additional 13.3% of the market taken up by battery electric models for less frequently used units, while the number of fossil fuel-powered trucks falls from 14 million to just 5 million by 2050, after having peaked at nearly 25. million in the early 2030s.

Note from David: There’s a lot of discussion in the zero-emissions community about the use of hydrogen for heavy-duty transportation and a comparison to battery-electric options, as evidenced by a search of the CleanTechnica archives. I eagerly await the results of this British study.


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