Heavy electric trucks, battery or hydrogen? UK reignites the fight

The UK government has launched an investigation in which it is going to invest 200 million pounds sterling (about 237 million euros) to find out what the future holds for road freight transport. During a period of three years, will try to understand the economic advantages of decarbonizing a sector that is responsible for around 5% of the country’s total carbon emissions. To do this, it will study the economic advantages of a fleet of electric trucks powered by batteries and another with a hydrogen fuel cell and the infrastructure needed to power them.

The program supports the UK Government’s aim to ensure that all new Heavy Duty Vehicles (HGVs) sold in the UK in 2040 be zero emissions. It will start at the end of this year and will last for three years. An average truck with a useful life of just under seven years would contribute significantly to the country’s plans to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

“The plan could see hundreds of zero-emission heavy-duty vehicles deployed across the country, which will save the industry money, thanks to the lower overall running costs of electric vehicles than gasoline equivalents and diesel”, assures the Department of Transport. “More efficient deliveries will in turn allow carriers to keep product prices low and protect customers from rising costs.” The Department of Transportation also outlined the key results the program is seeking by conducting a comparison between electrochemical battery and hydrogen fuel cell technologies.

Building on six previously conducted feasibility studies, including one by Leyland Trucks which implemented 20 DAF battery electric heavy duty vehicles for use in public sector organisations, the government will issue an open call for manufacturers, energy providers and fleet and infrastructure operators to showcase their technology.

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The Tesla Semi’s batteries will weigh 4.5 tons, giving it an energy density of around 5 MJ per kilogram. The fuel cell trucks designed by Nikola and Hyzon provide at least twice that energy density.

The battery-hydrogen debate

The debate between hydrogen and electric trucks is still plagued by claims and contradictions on both sides. Recently, Elon Musk he referred to hydrogen as “the dumbest thing I could imagine for energy storage”. While, Nikola Motorsa pioneer of trucks using this technology, has been attacked with misleading arguments that conflated the technology’s capabilities with the misleading claims of its CEO.

Earlier this year, the Fraunhofer Institute published a report stating that hydrogen was unlikely to play a significant role in trucks due to its high costs compared to batteries. But its proponents, such as Hyzon Motors, counter by arguing that power grids will have a hard time coping with a large number of heavy vehicles charging at once. Additionally, battery supply chain challenges are already being severely constrained in the production of consumer electric vehicles.

Scania, the Volkswagen-owned truckmaker, has also taken a surprising turn in its vision for hydrogen. Having last year ruled out this fuel as a way to decarbonise heavy transport, the company announces that will develop 20 fuel cell electric trucks with US fuel cell and electrolyser manufacturer Cummins as part of the Air Liquide-led HyTrucks project. The project aims to put 1,000 hydrogen trucks on the road in Belgium, the Netherlands and western Germany by 2025, along with the necessary refueling infrastructure.

The key feature that differentiates both technologies is energy density. Although in a private vehicle the famous “anxiety of rank” seems to disappear when it has autonomies of 450 kilometers, for heavy vehicles it is a difficult figure to reach. Engineers and designers must scale batteries to provide more range, which drives up vehicle cost and weight, reducing its carrying capacity.

The larger a vehicle is, and the longer it takes to charge the battery, the greater the disruption to its operations, and it is there where hydrogen has advantage. The technical performance of battery electric vehicles is undermined when it comes to heavy trucks. Hydrogen fuel cells offer a energy storage density much larger than lithium-ion batteries, longer driving range, reduced weight and much shorter recharging time.

Hyundai Xcient Fuel Cell 6×2

Tesla’s Semi, for example, is likely to have a battery weight of 4.5 tonnes when it enters the market in 2022 or 2023, giving it an energy density of around 5 MJ per kilogram. Hydrogen gas is 100 times more energy dense than a lithium ion battery. Over the next decade, fuel cell trucks designed by Nikola and Hyzon are likely to provide at least twice the energy density of battery-powered systems, while trying to cut prices purchase by 70%.

The hydrogen refueling of a truck with a range of 800 kilometers can be done in just 15 minuteswhile recharging the battery that provides the same autonomy can take on the order of six hours with the recharging powers existing today. However, these advantages have to compete with another reality. Hydrogen is much less efficient in terms of electricity consumption than battery electric vehicles. The well-to-wheel efficiency for producing green hydrogen and then using it in a fuel cell is 35%while batteries can provide efficiencies of the 70% or 80%.

Electric trucks with both technologies are beginning to enter the market. Hyzon Motors’ hydrogen pilot trucks will arrive from this year, while Hyundai’s XCIENT has already been delivered to the first customers in Switzerland. As for electric models, models such as Volvo’s VNR Electric, Kenworth’s Class 8 T68oE and Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz eActros LongHaul have been launched. Taking into account that logistics routes are quite predictable, infrastructure does not have to be a massive barrier for deployment. Fleet operators can deploy fuel cell trucks with a longer range by installing just the right service stations as needed.

Hydrogen fuel cells are also found in a stage of development much earlier than lithium ion batteries. But thanks to government support in Asia and Europe, the technology’s cost-cutting curve will be steeper in the coming years. Once the production cost of fuel cells and liquefaction technology decreases, the scalability of hydrogen tanks will allow for a lower cost of ownership.

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By 2035, 1.5 million fuel cell trucks and buses will deliver goods and carry passengers around the world, before an exponential increase to nearly 24.7 million by 2050.

With the fall in hydrogen costs and the economic advantages that operators would obtain, Rethink Energy anticipates that the parity between fuel cell trucks and fossil fuel trucks in terms of cost of ownership in 2026leading to a surge in demand before 2035. By this date, 1.5 million fuel cell trucks and buses will deliver goods and carry passengers around the world, before an exponential increase to almost 24 .7 million in 2050.

At this point, hydrogen trucks could represent over 80% of new vehicle sales, driven by logistics companies responding to investor pressure around climate change. It will be complemented by another 13.3% of the market that will be occupied by battery electric models that are used less frequently. Meanwhile, trucks running on fossil fuels will fall from 14 million to just 5 million by 2050, after peaking at nearly 25 million in the early 2030s.

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