Canada has a role in the push for hydrogen fuel cells

John G Smith

The promise of hydrogen as a vehicle fuel has been discussed for decades. But a series of corporate announcements and public policy initiatives appear ready to give this power source the boost that it needs to become viable.

Trucking – and Canada’s energy sector – are also on the cusp of playing a leading role in the work.

hdyrogen-powered truck
(Illustration: iStock)

Alberta, which offers natural gas deposits that can be used to produce hydrogen, is now home to the Alberta Zero Emissions Truck Electrification Collaboration (AZETEC) that will showcase exactly how well the fuel can work in heavy truck applications. The initiative supported by the Alberta Motor Transport Association (AMTA) will involve a pair of 140,000-lb. Super Bs running between Edmonton and Calgary.

The first of the trucks, operated by Bison Transport and Trimac Transportation, are scheduled to be rolling this July, with the on-highway tests to run until December 2022.

The Canadian content won’t be limited to the fleets and cargo, either. The trucks built on Freightliner Cascadia glider kits will draw from fuel cells and on-board hydrogen storage developed by Vancouver-based Ballard Power. The drivetrain and e-propulsion systems will come from Dana’s recently acquired Nordresa operation in Montreal. And the fuel, naturally, will come from Alberta natural gas and a steam methane reforming process.

When Daimler Trucks and Volvo Group recently announced a 50/50 joint venture to investigate hydrogen as a fuel source, meanwhile, news emerged that the German-headquartered initiative will have a presence in Vancouver as well.

South of the border, Nikola Motor Company continues to push forward with plans to commercialize its hydrogen-electric Class 8 truck, using a network of fuel stations that develop the hydrogen through green energy sources such as solar farms. Now publicly traded on the Nasdaq stock exchange, the upstart manufacturer with close to US $10 billion in pre-orders is preparing to break ground on an Arizona assembly operation. A battery-electric Class 8 is to come in 2021, followed by the hydrogen-electric Nikola Two in 2023.

None of the pre-orders required a down payment, but there’s clearly interest in the truck’s promise.

Canada’s federal government also appears ready to make its own public policy push for hydrogen as a fuel, as it looks for ways to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, make Alberta’s economy less reliant on carbon-intensive Oil Sands, and use infrastructure investments to kickstart the national economy in the wake of Covid-19.

The Globe and Mail has just reported that the federal government plans to roll out a hydrogen strategy this summer.

Several provinces have shown their own interest in hydrogen, even if the initiatives have been relatively small to this point. British Columbia has established a network of retail hydrogen stations, while Quebec is openly mulling the idea of hydrogen exports to the U.S. An Alberta Industrial Heartland Hydrogen Task Force was launched May 14 in Edmonton, and is set to have a report in July 2020.

The North American work is hardly occurring in a bubble. Analysts at IEA report at least 50 mandates and policy initiatives to support hydrogen, largely as a vehicle fuel. Five of the cited incentives and targets are specific to trucks.

While it’s a relatively new concept for trucking, HSBC reports there were 13,000 hydrogen-powered vehicles around the world last year.

Aside from the environmental advantages, there’s another factor that bodes well for the growing interest in trucks with fuel cells. To be competitive with diesel that costs 85 cents per liter, hydrogen would need to cost $3.50 to $5 per kilogram, the University of Calgary’s research lead Jessica Lof noted during this month’s Movin’ On sustainability conference sponsored by Michelin. She added that it could be produced in Alberta for just $1 per kilogram.

Analysts at IEA say the cost of producing hydrogen from renewable electricity could drop 30% within the decade.

There are plenty of hopes for hydrogen after all.

John G Smith

John G. Smith is the editorial director of Newcom Media's trucking and supply chain publications -- including Today's Trucking, trucknews.com, TruckTech, Transport Routier, Canadian Shipper, Inside Logistics, Solid Waste & Recycling, and Road Today. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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