Hydrogen vs battery trucks | 'H2 may be needed for grid-constrained areas and double shifts, not just long distances'

Proponents of hydrogen fuel cells have long said that they will be necessary for long-distance, heavy-duty road freight.

Proponents of hydrogen fuel cells have long said that they will be necessary for long-distance, heavy-duty road freight. However, a new report has found that there are two other applications where hydrogen trucks would have an advantage over battery electric vehicles. The group that wrote the report, called H2Accelerate, is a collaboration between oil companies Shell and TotalEnergies, truck makers Daimler, Volvo and Iveco, refiner OMV and industrial gases firm Linde. They consulted with more than 10 logistics operators and end-users in order to write the report.

The document states that hydrogen trucking will be necessary for long-haul, heavy-duty applications because it offers more flexibility than BEVs. However, hydrogen can also be advantageous in other situations, such as when trucks are operating in areas with significant grid constraints or when they are double shifted.

The study says that for applications where the wait for battery-operated vehicles to recharge is not viable even for relatively short-haul trips, "double shifted" vehicles are the answer. These are vehicles that are driven by two separate drivers in two consecutive shifts.

Logistics operators said that hydrogen vehicles are important in areas where the switch to battery electric vehicles would lead to significant grid constraints. This is because in places like the Netherlands, where zero-emission vehicles will be required from 2025, the current electricity grid would not be able to support the high demand from battery electric vehicles. Therefore, hydrogen vehicles will still be needed for short-range applications in these areas.

Many people would disagree with this statement. Multiple studies have shown that green hydrogen is not a very efficient fuel for road transport. It is more expensive than a comparable electric car. An electric car can use 77 kilowatts of every 100 kilowatts of renewable energy generated, but a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle can only use 30 kilowatts. This means that we would need to use 2 to 3 times more renewable energy per kilometer if we want to use green hydrogen.

The study published by the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research (ISI) in Germany in February concluded that hydrogen was not likely to play a major role in road transport due to its high operating costs. The study also pointed out that long-haul trucking of more than 500km per day "poses a challenge" for battery-electric options, because European regulations require truck drivers to stop for a 45-minute break after driving for more than four-and-a-half hours.

"In 4.5 hours, a heavy truck could travel around 400km. This means that a range of about 450km would be enough, if high-power fast charging for battery electric trucks was widely available," said Patrick Plötz from Fraunhofer, who wrote the article in the journal Nature Electronics. "Charging 400km in 45 minutes for a heavy truck means about 800kW average charging power. The current fast-charging standard... allows up to 350kW. But a new megawatt charging system standard is under development, which should allow over 2MW charging."

Charging multiple battery trucks at the same time would be difficult for the grid. You would need 8 times as many charging points as you would for a hydrogen refuelling network. This is according to Craig Knight, CEO of hydrogen truck maker Hyzon Motors. However, the H2Accelerate report says that "though it can be more cost effective for fleets to switch to a single technology type, logistics operators expect that most future fleets will be mixed, comprising both battery electric and hydrogen vehicles."

Cost parity with diesel

The paper also revealed that "while both logistics end users and logistics operators are willing to invest more money to try new technologies such as hydrogen, the cost needs to be equal to diesel in order for everyone to switch over." "Organisations are, at present, unwilling to explicitly pass on additional costs of zero emissions technologies to customers, for example, by charging a 'green premium'. "If [low-carbon trucking] technologies are not available at a reasonable cost, some organisations confirmed that they would consider offsetting emissions in order to meet targets."

According to the study, "hydrogen truck costs as well as the cost of low-carbon hydrogen production are expected to fall significantly over the coming decades". However, policy has a critical role to play in enabling and accelerating these cost reductions. In particular, there is "strong support for existing German policies for zero emissions trucking to be adopted across Europe". These policies include grant funding of up to 80% of the difference in costs between a diesel and a climate-friendly commercial vehicle, grant funding for up to 80% od the cost of refuelling/recharging infrastructure, and an exemption from road tolls for trucks with alternative propulsion.

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