Nikola Motor Company Projects A Disingenuous Vision For Renewable Hydrogen

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Nikola Motor Company is mounting an all-out assault on the status quo, with a fleet of new vehicles that would be challenging enough to bring from concept to prototype to release candidate to production by themselves. On top of this challenge, the company is planning to overthrow the network of petrol fueling stations that keep fleets and privately owned vehicles on the road with a new network of hydrogen fueling stations. The new network of Nikola Motor Company fueling stations will not only serve as the proverbial tap for hydrogen for drivers of fuel cell vehicles, like Nikola’s hydrogen fuel cell semi trucks, but will also serve as the backbone of Nikola’s network of service stations.

In parallel to building up its vehicle offerings, Nikola Motor Company must establish and launch a network of high-capacity hydrogen fueling stations that its customers can use to keep their vehicles topped up on local, regional, and long-haul routes across the United States and Europe. The North American launch will come first, with the Nikola Two launching in 2022 and the European spec Nikola Tre following in 2023.

The fueling station network is perhaps the boldest part of the Nikola plan and has the company partnering with the hydrogen fueling station experts at Norwegian Nel to build up the network. As of today, the largest hydrogen fueling station in the world is a 1 ton demonstration station that’s located near Nikola’s new headquarters in Phoenix, Arizona.

The partners are planning to bring a larger R&D station online in 2020, followed by the world’s first 8 ton per day station in 2021. After establishing the framework for the scalable model, work will commence on building out the planned network of 700 of the 8 ton stations across the United States and Europe.

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Current hydrogen fueling stations have a diminutive capacity, with most stations only having capacity to fill 40 cars at 4 kilograms each per day. These passenger vehicle stations will be dwarfed by Nikola’s first round of 8 ton stations that would represent the most significant expansion of the global hydrogen fueling network in history. “It still is the biggest, we believe, gaseous storage facility of hydrogen in America, and maybe the world, we’re not sure,” CEO of Nel parent company Nel ASA Jon Andre Lokke said at Nikola World about the new 8T stations in a special breakout session on hydrogen.

“The largest station in the world is 1T and that’s here in Phoenix, Arizona,” Jessie Schneider, Nikola Motor Company Executive Vice President of Hydrogen said at Nikola World. “This is 8 times that amount. Just to understand, that’s 150 trucks and 200 cars. If you have a truck depot, we’re talking about 4 times that amount.”

That frames up Nikola’s aspirational capacity, but also the size of the challenge hydrogen fuel cell vehicles face. Battery electric vehicles have it easy in this sense, because they do not need any specialized fuel production. Electricity generation exists all over the world, on every continent, and it is only getting cleaner as more and more renewables are added.

Hydrogen production faces an uphill battle as vehicle builders must not only build their revolutionary vehicles, supply chains, go-to-market strategies, and service centers — they also have to address fuel. That’s why Nikola Motor Company went after fleets first. Doing this allows them to build up a base of supporters to invest in a closed-loop ecosystem of vehicles and fueling stations/service centers to support a growing fleet of customer vehicles in intentionally zoned regions.

The fleet-plus-fueling-network model works well in this closed-loop world, but the stations also provide a backbone of fueling infrastructure for privately owned passenger vehicles. If its installation of the planned 700, 8 ton per day hydrogen fueling stations is successful, Nikola Motor Company and team will have planted the seeds for a revolution. “Clean transportation fuel, no compromise. That’s what we’re trying to achieve here,” Lokke said.

Renewable Hydrogen

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and solar powered production of hydrogen have the potential to give transportation a one-two knock out punch, but even the utopian projections of the Nikola Motor Company don’t have renewable hydrogen production on the radar. The company shared at Nikola World that its stations would start off with rooftop solar installations at its fueling depots, but rooftop solar would not be enough to produce all the power needed to churn out the hydrogen it would need.

Nikola’s Schneider said that each 8 ton station would need an estimated 17.6 MW of solar generation to make them fully sustainable. That is a hefty goal that would require tens of acres of land beyond the 7–10 acre fueling depots themselves. Initially, the 8 ton stations would start up with around 30–40% renewable electricity powering them. Said another way, they would effectively be using electricity that’s as clean as the current grid mix in California and Germany.

That’s not quite a 100% renewable vision, but it is still a good start at bringing renewable transportation fuel to the masses. Tesla’s plan from the start was to build electric vehicles and a solar-powered charging network to keep them all juiced up on longer road trips and that has yet to come to pass. The disconnect between the initial vision and taking some time to implement it is normal, which is fine.

Overcoming Inefficiencies

The real discrepancies start to emerge when we dig into the inefficiencies of hydrogen as an energy storage medium compared to battery electric vehicles. At a high level, battery electric vehicles are around 90% efficient with the electricity they use, with losses coming from the charger, inverters, and vampire drain. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, on the other hand, have it bad.

In its most sustainable form, hydrogen for fuel cell vehicles is generated through electrolysis, with electricity as the input. The great news is that in this form, both battery electric vehicles and sustainably-produced hydrogen comes from electricity and can be powered by solar, wind, or other renewables. The downside is that no matter how you slice it, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles hover around the 40% efficiency mark, leaving a bit to be desired to say the least.

In practical terms, that means that to make its hydrogen production systems renewable, the Nikola Motor Company will have to spend twice as much on solar panels and spread them across twice as much land. That is a not insignificant increase in upfront capital that the company will have to raise to deliver on its goal of 100% renewable hydrogen. Tesla also produces its own solar panels, so it even gets a discount on the front end for the renewable generation of its electricity.

Throughout Nikola World, CEO Trevor Milton reiterated that they are not competing with Tesla and that they were all on the same team, fighting against diesel trucks. That message took on a different tone on the funky world that is the internet when a Nikola Motor Company infographic did itself a disservice and painted battery electric vehicles out to be gas-guzzling, grid-tied polluters. On the other side of the equation, the Nikola Motor Company painted its own hydrogen fueling stations and vehicles as clean as a breath of mountain air, with its semi trucks farting out little more than blue sky and sunshine.

Nikola pulled the graphic down from their Hydrogen page after being confronted about its inaccuracy on Twitter. I’ll let the graphic do the rest of the talking and let you draw your own conclusions.

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Kyle Field

I'm a tech geek passionately in search of actionable ways to reduce the negative impact my life has on the planet, save money and reduce stress. Live intentionally, make conscious decisions, love more, act responsibly, play. The more you know, the less you need. As an activist investor, Kyle owns long term holdings in Tesla, Lightning eMotors, Arcimoto, and SolarEdge.

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