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If all goes according to plan, mobile hydrogen fueling stations will solve chicken-and-egg conundrum for fuel cell trucks in the US (image courtesy of Nikola).

Clean Transport

For Fuel Cell Trucks, Nikola Cooks Up Hydrogen Fueling Station On-The-Go

If all goes according to plan, mobile hydrogen fueling stations will solve the chicken-and-egg conundrum for fuel cell trucks in USA.

For all the arguments against green hydrogen, leading global energy stakeholders just can’t seem to keep their hands off the stuff. The latest one to pile on is Fortescue Future Industries. FFI has just teamed up with the fuel cell truck startup Nikola, with the idea of scaling up green hydrogen production in the US for fuel cell trucks. Nikola has cooked up an interesting solution to the hydrogen fueling station conundrum, too.

More Green Hydrogen For The US

For those of you new to the topic, fuel cell vehicles run on electricity, just like their battery powered cousins. The difference is that fuel cells produce electricity on the fly, by catalyzing a chemical reaction between hydrogen and air. Battery-electric vehicles store their electricity in, well, a battery.

The US Department of Energy kickstarted the battery-electric vehicle craze in 2010, when it awarded a $465 million dollar loan to a small-batch maker of luxury electric sports cars called Tesla Motors. The loan enabled Tesla to begin producing the Model S, a somewhat more affordable sedan for the mass market, in 2012.

In contrast, fuel cell vehicles have been slow to catch on. On top of other considerations, hydrogen has been problematic because the leading source of the global hydrogen supply is natural gas, along with other fossil sources.

The explosive growth of the green hydrogen industry, made possible by the low cost of wind and solar energy, has flipped the script on the natural gas problem. The main focus of green hydrogen activity involves electrolysis, in which electricity from renewable resources is deployed to push hydrogen gas from water.

The Energy Department is among those building momentum for a domestic green hydrogen economy in the US, partly with the aid of a new $8 billion funding pot to establish regional H2 hubs around the country.

But Where Are The Fueling Stations?

Green hydrogen or not, another strike against fuel cell vehicles is the lack of fueling stations. That will be resolved, eventually, just like the charging station situation is resolving for battery-electric vehicles.

In one interesting example, back in 2017 the Energy Department promoted a green hydrogen fuel station called SimpleFuel, a small, modular all-in-one H2 system that produces its own green hydrogen on the spot. The idea seemed to be slow on the uptake, but in recent months it has picked up steam under the umbrella of the firm PDC Machines.

Nikola has come up with a solution of its own. At a press event on Thursday afternoon, the company announced the launch of its HYLA hydrogen brand, along with a plan to establish 60 new hydrogen fuel stations in California, and in Colton, Ontario by 2026, along with a facility serving the Port of Long Beach.

That’s not the most interesting part, though. Nikola also introduced its plans to ferry hydrogen to its customers with the help of a fueling station on wheels, which it calls the “HYLA Flexible Mobile Fueler.”

Nikola describes HYLA as an “integral part of Nikola’s flexible customer service in its early years.”

“The mobile fueler cools and compresses hydrogen to rapidly fill 700 bar FCEV heavy-duty trucks,” Nikola explains. “Coupled with a hydrogen tube trailer with a capacity of 960 kg, the mobile fueler can refuel customer trucks back-to-back.”

Nikola reported that the first of its mobile fuelers is already in commercial operation, with others coming in Q1 this year. The company anticipates deploying third-party fuelers in addition to its own fleet.

More Green Hydrogen For More Fuel Cell Trucks

Nikola launched in 2014 with an initial plan to supply its fuel cell trucks with green hydrogen. The company has had its ups and downs since then, including a run-in with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and it remains to be seen if the green hydrogen supply can keep up with overall demand for hydrogen.

Nevertheless, there are signs of progress towards the vision of zero emission mobility powered by green hydrogen. That includes a new collaboration between Nikola and the company Plug Power, which is also in the green hydrogen camp.

Also on team green hydrogen is Fortescue Future Industries, an offshoot of the global mining giant Fortescue. On January 24, FFI and Nikola signed a Memorandum of Understanding to explore large scale green hydrogen production in the US.

As for sales of its Tre class 8 heavy duty fuel cell trucks, Nikola has been picking up steam.

Earlier this week, Nikola and its joint venture partner Iveco (part of the Iveco Group) announced that the paperwork is in to deliver 100 European variants of its Tre fuel cell trucks to the German transportation and logistics fleet operator GP Joule.

The trucks will be manufactured in Ulm. The plan is to deliver the first 30 next year and 70 more in 2025.

Who’s Gonna Pay For All This?

Nikola states that the order of 100 fuel cell trucks is contingent on GP Joule’s application for funding through KsNI, a German program that supports electric vehicles. It appears that Iveco is not waiting for the ink to dry. The company is already hatching plans for more fuel cell trucks with GP Joule, beginning in 2026, to be fueled with green hydrogen at GP Joule’s fueling stations.

Interest in fuel cell trucks also appears to be picking up in the US, though at a somewhat slower pace — for now. Nikola is just one of scores of US automotive stakeholders seeking a foothold in the hydrogen-powered transportation field.

Last Thursday, Nikola also announced that the California logistics company Biagi Bros. Inc. has an order in for 15 Tre fuel cell trucks, which it expects to deliver before the end of this year.

The company plans to fuel up its new fuel cell trucks at its headquarters in Ontario, California. No word yet if green hydrogen is part of the plan. The leading gas company Linde has a green hydrogen plant in Ontario, but the deal with Biagi involves a Nikola fueling station.

CleanTechnica is reaching out to Biagi for more information on that. Meanwhile, owners of the Tre fuel cell truck can look forward to a hefty incentive package, if all goes according to plan.

As of this writing, Nikola is waiting on final approval to enlist in the California Air Resources Board Hybrid and Zero Emission Truck and Bus Voucher Incentive Project (HVIP). If it wins approval, Nikola customers can try to qualify for a California state incentive valued between $240,000 and $288,000 per truck, depending on fleet size, operations, and location.

The federal Inflation Reduction Act also chips in another $40,000 in tax credits for vehicles purchased this year.

Adding to the pile is a $2 million grant from the US Department of Energy in 2021, for Nikola to develop an autonomous fuel station system.

That’s nothing compared to a potential $1.2 billion grant Nikola is seeking from the US Department of Energy, in support of its Phoenix Hydrogen Hub project in Arizona. The company’s application passed a Stage I review last December and they are currently waiting on the results of Stage II.

As of this writing the Phoenix project is a catch-all that includes hydrogen sourced from natural gas as well as green hydrogen, in accord with federal policies that continue to support natural gas. However, it remains to be seen if any buyers will be interested in fossil-sourced hydrogen once the green hydrogen industry scales up.

Follow me on Trainwreck Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Find me on LinkedIn: @TinaMCasey or Mastodon: @Casey or Post:  @tinamcasey

Image: Tre fuel cell trucks courtesy of Nikola.

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