Freightliner Tyrano by Vision Industries
Vision Industries Corporation developed fuel cell Freightliner truck prototype.

Heavy Trucks and Box Stores As Hydrogen Helpers

How big trucks and box stores could help spread a hydrogen fueling infrastructure.

By Tyson Eckerle

Infrastructure. That’s what we hear when people ask vehicle manufacturers about the main limiting factor to hydrogen vehicle deployment. Manufacturers have overcome range limitations (1) the ability to start and operate in cold weather (2) expect costs to come down with increased production, and are coming ever closer to fuel cell durability targets. To achieve manufacturer cost targets, vehicles basically need to be mass produced. These vehicles need access to fuel.

Unfortunately, based on testimony presented at the September 29, 2009 AB 118 Alternative Fuels Investment Plan workshop for Hydrogen based transportation, the business case for installing hydrogen fueling in a traditional gas station model does not yet exist. At demonstration fleet levels, the expected break-even price of hydrogen is too high to justify 100-percent privately funded stations. The assumption remains that public funding can and should be used to bridge this infrastructure development gap until hydrogen can be sold at volumes high enough to warrant 100-percent private development.

While public funding is an important component to establishing a hydrogen transportation economy, it remains politically tenuous, especially in the face of recent government funding shortfalls. For hydrogen to have the greatest chance for success, the business case needs to be developed as soon as possible. This is where heavy duty trucks and box stores come in.

From an operations standpoint, it already makes economic sense to operate heavy duty trucks with hydrogen as the primary fuel source. According to Vision Industries Corporation, their hydrogen powered heavy-duty Class-8 truck is 35-percent cheaper to operate than a similar diesel and 50-percent cheaper than a natural gas truck. Government subsidies have been applied to get the trucks off the ground, and as more trucks are produced, the per unit cost drops, leading affordable trucks that could be purchased without subsidy.

Why is this significant? It takes a lot of hydrogen fuel to operate a heavy duty truck. Over the course of a year, one of these trucks demands a volume of hydrogen fuel equivalent to 60 to 65 cars. This demand, and the fuel payment associated with it, improves the economics of hydrogen fuel production and delivery. In other words, high demand volume can help fuel providers achieve the economies of scale necessary to reduce hydrogen distribution costs. Conveniently, the first deployments of these trucks will be made in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, in the primary early market hydrogen passenger car target area.3 Passenger car fueling infrastructure can and should take advantage of the heavy duty hydrogen demand.

So what about box stores? Currently, their are over 50,000 electric lift trucks operating in large fleets in California warehouses and stores. According to Plug Power these electric units suffer from downtime when charging and/or swapping out batteries. They claim that work efficiencies can be improved using fuel cell powered lifts, primarily based on quick refueling times, and that operation can be cheaper. A number of stores, including Wal Mart, FedEx, and CocaCola appear to agree, at least in specific locations (refer to the Plug Power presentation stored here for specifics)

According to Plug Power, individual warehouses represent a commercial scale demand (up to 300 kg per day, equivalent to fueling 76 Honda Clarities). Box stores and warehouses can increase the volume of hydrogen demanded in the same way heavy duty trucks do. However, box stores are located conveniently next to major population centers. It takes little imagination to picture hydrogen production dedicated to the consistent lift truck operation and an increasing population of light duty vehicles. Walmart, Costco, Home Depot, etc. could use their hydrogen production to both fuel their internal goods movement and their customers. This would leverage the baseload demand for hydrogen in the warehouses to build infrastructure for passenger vehicles.

Public funding is an important component in hydrogen fuel infrastructure development. But, cross sector interests need to by synergized to leverage the maximum power of the private sector. We, as a society, need to do everything we can to make sure we take advantage of every case where hydrogen makes economic sense in the early market. The more systems we deploy now, the more likely we will be able to meet our 2050 GHG emissions reductions targets. That, is in everyones interest.

Tyson Eckerle is the Associate Director of Energy Independence Now.


1 The Toyota Highlander FCV-adv traveled 431 miles on a single tank, Hyuandai-Kia went 396 miles in an unpublished test (Refer to Hyundai presentation stored here), Honda achieves 240 miles with its lower pressure hydrogen tank.

2 Honda and Toyota have been able to operate their FCV in temperatures as cold as -30 deg C; Hyundai-Kia has verified up to -20 deg C

3 Medium and heavy duty trucks account for approximately 20-percent of California’s transportation related emissions (transportation in total accounts for 40-percent of annual California emissions).

Times Article Viewed: 6807
Published: 09-Oct-2009


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