Hydrogen vs. Electric: An Analysis for Long-Haul Trucking
Long-haul trucks act as the connective tissue of the American economy, playing a pivotal role in moving raw goods and finished products across the nation. To make this happen, fuel is constantly burning, contributing significantly to GHG emissions.
According to a policy analysis in Environmental Science and Technology: “Even though heavy-duty trucks (i.e., Class 7 and Class 8 trucks) represent only 1% of on-road vehicles, heavy-duty trucks account for 28% of U.S. on-road vehicles' energy consumption, 27% of on-road greenhouse gas emissions, and 47% of on-road vehicle NOx emissions.”
As the urgency to address climate change grows, the transportation sector faces mounting scrutiny and pressure to find cleaner alternatives to traditional combustion engines.
Currently, two prominent solutions are vying for the spotlight: electric and hydrogen trucking. While neither technology is capable of wholly replacing diesel engines at present, they represent the forefront of a clean transportation future.
What Are Electric Trucks?
Electric trucks (or EV trucks) are vehicles powered by electricity instead of traditional fuels like diesel or gasoline. They rely on large batteries that store and discharge electrical energy to drive electric motors. Several industry leaders are spearheading the transition to electrified trucking, including:
- Volvo Group – In collaboration with leading vehicle manufacturers, Daimler AG (parent company of Mercedes Benz) and Traton Group, Volvo has unveiled the VNR Electric, marking their significant foray into the realm of electrified semi-trucks.
- Nikola Motors – This innovative company plans to capitalize on both battery-electric and fuel-cell technologies. Their main attractions in the long-haul segment are the TWO FCEV and the TRE FCEV—both powered by fuel cells.
- Tesla – As the leading manufacturer of commercial EVs, Tesla has also sought to disrupt the green trucking industry with the Tesla Semi, which promises a 500-mile range on a single charge and a rapid recharge capability, adding 400 miles in just 30 minutes.
These developments underscore the growing momentum behind electric trucking solutions as the industry seeks cleaner and more sustainable alternatives to conventional diesel trucks.
Pros and Cons of Electric Trucks
As with any new technology, there are tradeoffs in the early stages of adoption when it comes to electric trucks entering the long-haul trucking sector.
- Reduced direct emissions – Electric trucks don't emit harmful greenhouse gasses or pollutants during operation or idling. This not only results in improved air quality, especially in urban environments, but also moves the needle toward climate goals.
- Long-term cost savings – While the upfront cost can be substantial, the reduced expenses associated with electricity compared to diesel, combined with fewer moving parts resulting in lower maintenance costs means that over the vehicle's lifespan, owners could experience significant savings.
- Quiet operation – Electric trucks operate with significantly reduced noise levels, a boon for nighttime deliveries where noise pollution is a concern. This could lead to more flexible delivery schedules without disturbing residential areas.
- Limited range – Currently, electric is a potential solution for short-hauling, but not a viable substitute for long-hauling. While strides are being made, electric semi-trucks currently have a range limitation of approximately 500 miles. This is inefficient compared to modern long-haul diesel trucks, which can go approximately 2,000 miles without stopping to fill up. For long-haul truckers, this would require more frequent stops for charging, potentially extending delivery times and increasing the total costs of operation.
- Higher upfront costs – The technology, batteries, and components used in electric trucks are still relatively expensive. This leads to a higher initial price, which can be a barrier to entry for many companies, especially smaller operations considering upgrading their fleet.
- Limited charging infrastructure – The charging infrastructure for electric trucks isn't as widespread or as fast as refueling diesel trucks. This can pose logistical challenges for trucking companies, potentially leading to longer downtimes during trips. And those recharges might take anywhere from 1 to 2 hours.
- Dependence on a fossil-fueled grid – A significant criticism is that although electric vehicles are technically emissions-free, their power comes from electricity grids that still predominantly rely on natural gas and coal. The more EVs that are added to the grid, the greater the strains and demands. As a result, net environmental benefits might not be as substantial as perceived.
What Are Hydrogen Fuel Trucks?
Hydrogen-fuel ICE trucks represent the latest and most promising innovation in the quest for greener transportation. These semi-trucks operate using hydrogen internal combustion engines (ICE), which function similarly to their gasoline and diesel counterparts. However, instead of igniting traditional fuels, these engines combust hydrogen gas, which results in only water as a byproduct.
Although this technology is still relatively new, hydrogen represents the future of California’s zero-emission trucking infrastructure. And several automakers have recently unveiled or plan to release hydrogen-powered semi-trucks this year and next, including Nikola Motors, Cummins, and Toyota’s hydrogen-burning AE86.
Pros and Cons of Hydrogen
While this hydrogen mobility technology and infrastructure are still developing, hydrogen-fueled vehicles appear to be a more viable candidate for replacing diesel-powered vehicles down the road. There are significant advantages and challenges of hydrogen-fueled vehicles, including:
- Reduced emissions – Unlike EV trucks, hydrogen-fueled trucks offer both direct and indirect emission reductions since they don’t produce emissions and don’t rely on the energy grid.
- Quick refueling – A notable advantage of hydrogen long haul trucks is their refueling speed. These vehicles can achieve a range of up to 500 miles and can be refueled in about 20 minutes—akin to traditional diesel refueling times.
- High energy density – Hydrogen stands out for its impressive energy density by weight. This trait makes it especially well-suited for long-haul trucking, where both vehicle range and cargo weight are critical.
- Seamless transition experience – Adopting hydrogen doesn't mean overhauling the entire fueling routine. The refueling and performance characteristics of hydrogen trucks mirror what drivers are accustomed to with diesel, easing the transition to this cleaner energy source.
- Life cycle cost benefits – Over the entirety of a truck's life, hydrogen can offer cost savings. This includes reduced fuel costs over time, potential maintenance savings due to fewer moving parts, and benefits from potential regulatory incentives.
- Infrastructure hurdles – The most glaring challenge facing hydrogen trucks is the limited refueling infrastructure. While there are significant efforts underway across the country to expand the network of hydrogen fueling stations, it's currently not as widespread as needed for mass adoption.
- High-upfront investment – Until this new technology is adopted wholly and further innovation drives the price down, hydrogen-powered trucks will cost more than legacy diesel-powered vehicles.
Embracing the Hydrogen Mobility Future
If long-haul fleets switch from conventional diesel-powered models in the pursuit of net-zero, hydrogen-fueled semis are the most promising long-term solution. While EV trucks could serve in a short-haul capacity, at present, there are too many inherent technological limitations prohibiting their effective use in long-haul scenarios.
Hydrogen trucks, on the other hand, offer a similar range, better refueling speed, and the high energy efficiency needed to compete with diesel, setting the stage for a greener transportation future.
As hydrogen infrastructure develops, hydrogen trucks could redefine the future of transportation, pushing us closer to a sustainable world. And, at FASTECH, we’re taking the steps to usher in the hydrogen revolution.
As an industry-leading provider of end-to-end hydrogen solutions and renewable EPC services, we have already successfully constructed over 30 hydrogen stations for top corporations and energy providers, with more planned projects on the horizon.