Hydrogen fuel cells gaining momentum

In the coming decade, investors are betting that hydrogen will become a prominent fuel that can eliminate carbon dioxide discharges from the vehicles it energizes.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the transportation sector has dominated the growth in U.S. carbon dioxide emissions since 1990, accounting for 69 percent of the total increase.

It is important that hydrogen technology advances rapidly because cars, trucks and buses are a growing contributor to greenhouse gas buildups in our atmosphere. For example, Seattle-based Amazon alone doubled its truck fleet to 20,000 in just a year, according to GeekWire.com. Its fleet runs on diesel.

In 2017, Amazon reached an agreement with Plug Power to use its fuel cells and hydrogen technology in its fulfillment centers. Revenue associated with the commercial agreements were estimated to be about $70 million.

Faced with increasing numbers of vehicles on the road, many governments worldwide have pegged hydrogen as another way to eliminate human generated carbon dioxide. Just as enticing, the byproduct of hydrogen fuel cells is water.

Developing hydrogen into a commercially viable fuel takes money – lots of it.

The Hydrogen Council, whose 60 members represent total revenue of nearly $2.9 trillion and close to 4.2 million jobs, recently joined forces with European Investment Bank to finance hydrogen projects.  The council believes it will require $20 billion to $25 billion in annual investments during the next decade.

The council’s goal is not to diminish the importance of investments in battery electric vehicle, or BEV, technology, or lower carbon fuels but believes large-scale capital investments also need to go into developing other ways to power vehicles.

For example, China has made BEV development and production a primary objective of its ambitious “Made in China 2025” initiative. With the help of the government, it already makes nearly half of the world’s electric vehicles today and aims to dominate that sector over the next five years.

The key drawbacks of BEVs are driving range, lengthy charging time and recycling of spent batteries, many of which end up in landfills. Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles, or FCEVs, on the other hand, can cover similar distances, but drivers can gas up with hydrogen instead of gasoline or diesel.

Many automakers are investing heavily in hydrogen as well.  Hyundai, the South Korean auto giant, already is devoting $6.3 billion to fuel cell technology and plans to ramp up production from 3,000 units per year to 40,000 by 2022.

Washington-based truck manufacturer Kenworth is developing 10 zero-emissions Kenworth T680s powered by Toyota hydrogen fuel cell electric powertrains. Last April, Toyota and Kenworth unveiled the jointly developed fuel cell electric heavy-duty truck, the result of a collaboration with the California Air Resources Board and the Port of Los Angeles. The trucks will be used at the Ports of Los Angeles, throughout the Southern California and Central Coast areas, and in Merced County.

“One of the benefits of FCEVs is that hydrogen uses a fueling infrastructure that’s similar to conventional trucks. This means that FCEVs could be refueled at existing truck stops across the country and the fueling experience would be similar. A truck can be filled with hydrogen in less than 15 minutes,” said Patrick Molloy of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Denver.

Nikola Motors, a U.S. maker of hydrogen trucks, claims its vehicles can get 12 to 15 miles per gallon, well above the average 6.4 mpg for a diesel truck. Nikola Motors, based in Phoenix, just announced it also launched a road map for 700 fueling stations across the country.

The bottom line is now that hydrogen technology is growing in acceptance, it is starting to scale up, reduce production costs and accelerate infrastructure and research. 

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.  

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