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CERAWeek 2022: Hydrogen-powered fuel cells see a role in heavy duty trucks

08 March 2022 Amena Saiyid

Hydrogen-powered fuel cells will find greater use in buses, heavy-duty trucks, and other forms of freight transportation due to the ease with which fueling can take place, as opposed to batteries that are better suited for passenger cars, according to engine and fuel cell manufacturers.

"Where you have light-duty vehicles, you have low-range requirements and lots of time to recharge," Randy MacEwen, CEO of Canadian firm Ballard Power Systems, told Net-Zero Business Daily 8 March on the sidelines of the CERAWeek 2022 conference by S&P Global.

In contrast, "where you have heavy-duty vehicles with long, daily range requirements, high utilization, and need for fast refueling, we think [hydrogen] fuel cells make a lot of sense," MacEwen added.

Agreeing with MacEwen, Amy Adams, vice president, fuel cell and hydrogen technologies at engine maker Cummins, said fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) and battery electric vehicles (BEVs) consist of technologies that complement each other.

Both Adams and MacEwen participated in a March 8 panel discussion about the status of EVs powered by fuel cells and batteries in the race to net-zero carbon levels by 2050 at the CERAWeek conference in Houston.

Infrastructure, grid challenges

During the discussion, Adams pointed out the infrastructure challenges that batteries pose for large fleets of buses or trucks.

"So it's one thing to charge two or three buses at night, but it's another thing to have to charge 50 buses all at the same place, and to build all that infrastructure for electric charging," she said.

Adams also said the payload limits for each truck that would be reduced if the space and weight is occupied by batteries.

MacEwen noted the congestion to the electrical grid where 500 trucks arrive in varying states of charging. Fuel cells have the "strongest" value proposition for heavy-duty vehicles applications, MacEwen told the panel moderator Abbas Ghamdi, who also is associate director for research and analysis at S&P Global Commodity Insights' ENR downstream consulting division.

Scaling up technology

MacEwen acknowledged that batteries have received a "headstart" in scale of adoption, but added that he expects to see a 70% reduction in the cost of fuel cells as technologies are scaled up and adopted.

According to Alex Klaessig, senior director at S&P Global Commodity Insights, the current cost of a hydrogen fuel cell is about $200/kWh.

The key lies in designing a fuel cell-powered engine that can be adopted across various heavy duty applications, such as buses, trucks, rail and marine, as well as offroad applications including mining and construction equipment, and stationary power backups, MacEwen said.

For instance, he said Ballard Power Systems has designed a 200-kw fuel cell engine for marine applications that can also be used for stationary applications.

All panelists saw a key role for governments in setting targets that would not only drive innovation in technologies but also result in lowered costs due to widespread adoption.

McEwen said the greatest adoption will take place where the policy signals are the strongest. For instance, he pointed to China which has a plan to have a million fuel cell vehicles on the road by 2030 along with a million fuel cell refueling stations.

EPA didn't prescribe technology

In the US, fuel cells could get new support because the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed 7 March to strengthen GHG emissions standards for heavy-duty engines used in certain classes of trucks.

Specifically, EPA updated "Phase 2" GHG standards, which began in 2021 and became increasingly stringent through 2027, for 17 of 33 sub-categories for heavy duty vehicles starting with model year 2027. These include school buses, transit buses, commercial delivery trucks, and short-haul tractors.

Transportation is the largest source of GHG emissions in the US, making up 29% of all emissions. Within this sector, heavy-duty vehicles are the second-largest contributor, at 23%, passenger cars responsible for the most emissions.

Adams said the EPA did not prescribe a particular technology, but rather left it up to engine manufacturers to find the most cost-effective approach to meet that goal.

In Germany, for instance, the government has left automakers with no choice but to pursue zero-emissions BEVs, according to Holger Lösch, deputy director general for the Federation of German Industries (BDI).

He said Germany has set an ambitious target of having 15 million public electric charging stations to meet its targets of 15 million BEVs by 2030. Given that Germany has 48 million passenger cars, there are about 30 million cars that will still be running on internal combustion engines.

McEwen said hydrogen will play a key role in any country's objective in trying to reach net-zero goals. He said at least 90 countries have agreed to meet net-zero targets, but that more tellingly at least 50 countries have issued roadmaps for adopting hydrogen technology.

"We cannot achieve the 1.5 degrees Celsius target without hydrogen," he said. "We will need both blue and green hydrogen with the percentage of green hydrogen increasing over time." The green variety of hydrogen is gleaned from renewable-powered electrolysis of water, while blue hydrogen is produced from the steam reformation process of natural gas that is equipped with carbon capture technology.

Commenting on the role of hydrogen in the transport sector in another CERAWeek session, Peter Terwiesch, president of process automation of Swedish-Swiss firm ABB, agreed with McEwen and Adams that this low-carbon alternative fuel "travels really well over long distances" and is easily stored, but not as easily transported.

Adams also had remarked on the ease with which hydrogen can be stored at stations or can be stored at a central station from where it can be transported like gasoline to the stations.

In a separate CERAWeek discussion on EVs and their impact on oil demand, Arno van den Haak, head of worldwide energy business development at Amazon Web Services, said the US Department of Energy's goal to lower the current cost of green hydrogen to $1.00/kg by 2030 would be a "game changer" for the company.

Amazon already uses forklifts across its operations that are powered by hydrogen fuel cells from Plug Power.

If cost continues to drop, "we will be very active participants," van den Haak said.

Posted 08 March 2022 by Amena Saiyid, Senior Climate and Energy Research Analyst

This article was published by S&P Global Commodity Insights and not by S&P Global Ratings, which is a separately managed division of S&P Global.


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