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Can hydrogen deliver a new way to decarbonize?

Rail and shipping are natural fits for hydrogen fuel cells, experts say. Where hydrogen fits in ground transportation is less certain.

Long-haul trucking holds potential. Medium- and heavy-duty trucks consume 26 percent of U.S. transportation fuel, according to the EPA. Fuel cells prove advantageous in the energy density hydrogen provides. They have quick refueling times and a smaller weight penalty than battery electric vehicles.

Sucking up payload capacity with heavy batteries presents a problem for long-haul trucking because it reduces profits. Because of weight differences, a fuel-cell truck on a 350-mile run can carry about 38,000 pounds of cargo compared with 33,000 pounds for a battery electric truck, according to Michael Roeth, executive director of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency. Although it’s heavier than a conventional internal combustion tractor, a 2,000-pound federal payload allowance for zero-emission trucks puts a fuel-cell truck’s cargo capacity at par with its diesel counterpart, he said.

In terms of total cost of ownership, fuel cell provider Ballard estimates battery electric trucks would cost $434,381 in regional-haul scenarios; a comparable fuel cell truck would cost $414,367, a price that’s on a par with diesel, the company said.
A September 2021 analysis from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory presents more mixed results, which support the idea there’s room for both technologies. It suggests each powertrain may hold cost-of-ownership advantages in specific business scenarios and route distances. Fuel prices are a substantial variable. Overall, the lab’s researchers say electric powertrains may be best in short-range applications or when dwell time is not a concern. The report said both technologies could be cost competitive with diesel trucks as early as 2025.
“A good rule of thumb is that you’ll see hydrogen fuel cells where you see diesel today and battery electric where you see gasoline,” said Tom Stephenson, co-founder of Pajarito Powder, a New Mexico hydrogen components startup backed by Hyundai Motor Group.

Not everyone is convinced. When John Henry Harris co-founded medium-duty truck startup Harbinger in July 2021, he opted to start from scratch with a purpose-built vehicle. He quickly soured on hydrogen as a potential option.

“When we actually look at the maturity of the two solutions, we see an order of magnitude separation,” he said. “We reached the point in the past two years that we can build an electric platform without compromise. If we want to do that with a hydrogen vehicle, we are not even close yet.”

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