Research points to hydrogen electric trucks as best option for the future

CALGARY, Alta. – A research group from the University of Calgary believes the future of freight in Alberta will be heavily reliant on the use of hydrogen fuel cell electric trucks.

With growing concerns over the environmental impact of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from trucks, and the industry’s dependence on fossil fuels, Jessica Lof, an energy systems analyst for the Canadian Energy Systems Analysis Research (CESAR) initiative at the University of Calgary, said hydrogen electric vehicles offer comparable range, towing power, and torque to diesel.

Lof added that when evaluating trucks running on hydrogen electric and those on a fully electric battery, the hydrogen option is a better fit for Alberta.

“Hydrogen is more aligned with Alberta’s strengths,” she said. “We have the energy sector, we have the skills and the people. If we invest in the hydrogen ecosystem, we can benefit from all the other things that will produce.”

The province’s abundance of natural gas reserves can be utilized by employing a reforming process called steam methane reforming to produce hydrogen. Renewable energies like wind can also be used with electrolysis technology to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.

Through their research, CESAR examined some of the “most promising zero emission vehicles” on the market, including the hydrogen fuel cell electric truck Nikola One and fully electric Tesla Semi.

Negatives such as lengthy charging times, the weight of batteries, and an inability to travel long distances, were reasons fully electric trucks were not seen by CESAR as being the best option for Alberta, and Canada as a whole.

A lack of infrastructure was one area Lof said needs to be addressed for the use of hydrogen electric trucks to progress, and Alberta should lead in that department.

“Alberta is in the transportation business, and Alberta needs to position itself as if it is in the transportation industry,” she said, highlighting that the province produces 80% of Canadian crude, 73% going to transportation, and that the fuel supply from Alberta oil is nine times what the province needs.

With the goal of discovering an option that will provide transformative change to the industry, Lof highlighted some of the statistics that make up the amount of emissions stemming from the trucking sector.

Overall, trucking produces 80% of the emissions from all freight transportation, with an annual consumption of approximately 18 billion liters of diesel per year.

Between 1996 and 2015, freight GHG emissions increased 109% due to the mode share – road, air, sea, rail – shifting to truck. Surface transportation is now 44% by truck and 56% by rail, with rail using up to nine times less energy.

“Any kind of growth in trucking adds to our overall emissions,” said Lof.

Transformative change, explained Lof, would be a move from the traditional diesel combustion engine – which she said is incredibly inefficient – to an alternative that would not only dramatically reduce carbon emissions, but also be a viable and worthwhile option for the industry.

Lof said when a “dead-end pathway” is forced upon the freight sector, such as propane, LNG, and ethanol, carriers tend to grow tired of the idea of using alternative fuels.

Many of the dead-end pathways have been employed to reach short-term environmental goals, said Lof, and ignore the big picture, like Canada’s Paris Agreement to reduce its emissions to 20% of 2005 levels by 2050.

Therefore, any change to the industry must be able to meet economic goals and be credible so that investors will buy in, as well as reach long-term environmental targets.

“I think the hydrogen pathway is the model, specifically for tractor-trailers,” said Marcel Pouliot, vice-president of industry and regulatory affairs for Trimac.

Pouliot said for real change to occur in the supply chain sectors, it must come from those with real influence, such as the shipping community and manufacturers.

“You can lead up to a point, but it’s really hard to just go in another direction,” Pouliot said of the trucking industry.

Pouliot said Trimac has committed money to both Nikola’s hydrogen electric truck, as well as Tesla’s fully-electric Semi.

Not trusting Tesla

Pouliot said he is skeptical about how the Tesla Semi will perform for the type of operations Trimac specializes.

Lof echoed the sentiment, saying she is not convinced the Semi will get the range Tesla claims, especially at the cost they have proposed for the truck.

The expected price for a 475-km range Semi is $190,000, while the 800-km range truck is $230,000.

Advertising a 475-800-km range fully loaded, Lof said if the Semi were to achieve this mark, it would need a 1.6 megawatt battery, which would weigh around 16,000 lbs., taking away from the amount of freight the Semi could haul.

The Tesla Semi is anticipated to weight around 37,000 lbs., while a traditional diesel truck tips the scale at about 17,000 lbs.

Charging time is another issue with battery -powered trucks. Even with a fast charger, which knocks the time down to around five to six hours, time is an issue compared to how long it takes to refuel a diesel truck.

Pouliot also pointed out that fast charging is hard on a lithium battery, and can decrease its lifecycle, adding to the overall cost of the investment.

Lof said if all trucks in Alberta were to switch over to battery electric, the province’s electric capacity would need to be significantly increased.

Autonomous benefits

Lof said a move toward autonomous trucks would help decrease carriers’ operating costs by 25%.

“This speaks to how compelling this future is, why investors would want to invest in it, and why it is going to go this way,” she said of self-driving trucks.

Pouliot suggested that once OEMs get to the point where autonomous trucks are being used, trucking could be sold as a service and no longer as a product to trucking companies, and carriers could cease to exist.

Gary Millard, who is the senior advisor of energy and climate change for Suncor, but was part of the July 24 discussion representing the Energy Futures Lab, said although many business models would be destroyed from the use of autonomous trucks, more opportunities would arise if companies can make the transition.

“Whoever has the successful business model, they lead the way and the regulations catch up,” said Millard, using Uber as an example when it began operations in municipalities prior to government regulations to manage the company.

As for the perceived driver shortage, Millard said it’s hard enough to get new people interested in truck driving long term, and the time it will take for self-driving trucks to become the norm, autonomous may end up being the solution.

He added that though there would be a loss of driver positions, there would be an increase in the technology field, which is a more exportable skill set than is a driver.

Changing regulations will be the primary roadblock to autonomous trucks on public roadways, something Pouliot said has long been an issue in Canada from province to province.

“The only thing I can drive from coast to coast in this country is the most inefficient truck available,” he said, “because it has to meet the lowest standard (of each province).”

CESAR held the “Future of Freight” discussion at the Alberta Motor Transport Association’s Calgary office as a way to garner feedback from carriers as part of its Pathway Project, which is funded by the Alberta government as a way to inspire positive, constructive, collaborative, and informed conversations about systems changes.

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A university graduate with a degree in English, I have worked in the media and trucking industries as a writer, editor, and now as western bureau chief of Today's Trucking and I have several years of management experience in journalism, as well as hospitality, but am first and foremost a writer, both professionally and in my personal life, having completed two fiction novels.

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  • A well-written article, and I have no argument with anything said. However, a critical factor that has been overlooked in this article, and is overlooked in virtually all other articles comparing battery-electric to fuel-cell, is operating temperature.

    Alberta, especially Northern Alberta, is a whole lot colder for several months each year than the source of most of these comparisons: California.

    Cold KILLS battery-electric range, and Li-ion batteries are especially susceptible. I drove a Honda Fit BEV for 3 years in Upstate New York. When the temperature dipped below zero F (~-18 C), my driving range plunged to 25 miles (WITHOUT using cabin heat!), from a typical summer-time range of 100 miles.

    Contrast that to a fuel-cell: start-up and operating temperatures are now listed to -25 C (colder startup would be possible with a variant of the old-school ‘block-heater’). Other than water, and power, they produce heat; heat is a good thing in the dead of winter in Alberta (and much of the rest of Canada).

    So: please consider adding operating temperature to your list of ad/disads when comparing the two forms of technology for trucking. Imagine if your truck’s range dropped by 75% on a (really) cold day, and you’ll see how important this factor becomes.

  • A well-written article, but the energy efficiency of hydrogen fuel cells should not be ignored.
    Electrolysis 1Kg of liquid hydrogen consumes 56Kw
    1Kg liquid hydrogen fuel cell vehicle can drive 100 kilometers
    Electric vehicle lithium battery 60Kg can travel 300 kilometers on a single charge
    It is not difficult to see that fuel cells are high energy-consuming products.
    Many people still don’t realize

  • dear wenxin,

    you comments are very interesting, can you elaborate further please?

    case 1 = electrolysis efficiency?
    case 2 = liquid hydro fuel cell?
    case 3 = electric lithium batt?

    are you saying battery is most efficient?
    or least efficient?

    thank you

  • I am a structural engineer in the US. One item that really stood out to me is a question of an electric Semi-Truck that adds a net 20,000 pounds (37,000 – 17,000 = 20,000 lbs.) to the vehicular weight.

    The axle weights would certainly seem to imply a redistribution of live loads on structures, such as bridges. I wonder if the entire infrastructure of roads and bridges will now need to be re-evaluated for load rationing analyses to determine the capacity of these infrastructure systems. It’s not just more weight, but how that weight is being re-distributed that can have a detrimental affect on our infrastructure .