Fuel Cells Delivering On Zero-Emission Commercial Vehicles

By: Ben Nyland (c) 2021

The general consensus today is that the achievement of zero-emission transportation is a priority issue, yet the path to how we achieve these goals is not as clear. While most experts agree emission-free transportation must be electric, the discussion is often mired by dogmatic positions including whether fuel cells or batteries are the superior technology, or whether “near-zero” technologies such as natural gas are “good enough.”  Perhaps the most ironic development following Elon Musk’s labelling of fuel cells as “fool cells” is that one of the fastest-growing segments we see for fuel cell deployment is their use in powering fast chargers for battery electric vehicles!

As entertaining as the verbal jousting may be, it is actually counterproductive and harmful because it can confuse customers and slow down the transition to zero-emission powertrains across all vehicles. Instead of arguing about which technology is “better,” we would be better served by viewing zero-emission vehicles through the lens of customer needs and providing vehicles with the product solution best suited for those needs. Not a novel concept: The customer is always right.

The reality is that transportation accounts for so much of the global emissions profile, and the diversity of applications are so substantial that no single technology will provide the entire solution.  This is part of the reason that both gasoline and diesel are widely distributed fuels. They each deliver unique benefits, and it would be foolish for someone to debate which of these two technologies is going to “win.”  This article aims to outline the benefits of hydrogen and fuel cells for the achievement of zero emissions and the types of applications where fuel cells can deliver the best zero-emission solutions.

Hydrogen electric transit bus in Asia, powered by Loop Energy’s hydrogen fuel cell solutions. Photo provided by Loop Energy

As a general rule of thumb, vehicles that use gasoline today are good options for battery electric replacements and vehicles that use diesel today are good options for fuel cell replacements. While this is not universally true, it does provide a more intuitive view of the industry. Plus, this is how solutions are generally being rolled out in the industry today. Cars and small logistics vehicles are being deployed in very large numbers as battery electric vehicles, with only a relatively small number of fuel cell vehicles in these categories. Companies in commercial vehicle manufacturing or supply chain delivery systems are primarily rolling out fuel cell-based vehicles for larger commercial vehicle applications. In China, where there was the world’s largest deployment of battery-electric buses over the last several years, the nation is now shifting towards fuel cell buses. What are the reasons for this trend?

The most important consideration with commercial vehicles is the total cost of ownership, as commercial vehicle owners are in business to make a profit. The total cost of ownership takes into account the costs to acquire and operate the vehicle as well as its capability to generate revenue. The cost of acquiring a fuel cell vehicle (today) is higher than an internal combustion engine vehicle but will come down over time as the industry scales. Operating costs of an electric vehicle (battery or fuel cell) tend to be substantially less than their internal combustion counterparts. 

Equally important is how well the zero-emission vehicle can generate revenue. This is where fuel cells deliver significant value. There are three primary considerations for this:  vehicle range, cargo capacity and refuelling time. Internal combustion engines perform well in each of these three categories, so operators will want zero-emission vehicles that can exceed those needs. In all three categories, fuel cell (and fuel cell battery hybrid) vehicles provide a superior solution to battery-only vehicles.

Vehicle range and cargo capacity are actually often two sides of the same coin.  One of the significant benefits of hydrogen is that it is extremely light, while one of the disadvantages of batteries is that they are heavy. In a pure battery-electric heavy-duty truck, the batteries can add up to 8 tons, resulting in 8 tons less cargo capacity. On the contrary, removing batteries for more cargo space significantly reduces the range of travel on a single charge.  Fleet operators realize that this tradeoff means fuel cell vehicles are a necessity for commercial fleets to make the transition to zero emissions.

Hydrogen fuel cell solutions by Loop Energy can be applied to many vehicle types including heavy-duty tractors. Photo provided by Loop Energy

Refuelling time is another benefit of the hydrogen fuel cell solution. Refuelling hydrogen is roughly comparable to refuelling for an internal combustion engine vehicle. In contrast, a pure battery-electric commercial vehicle would require hours to recharge. Fast recharging options exist but that can significantly shorten battery life, leading to more frequent battery replacements and thus a substantially higher lifetime cost for the operator. Unlike consumer vehicles which, for the most part, can use the existing electrical infrastructure, recharging fleets of commercial vehicles will require substantial upgrades to the electrical grid.  Both the cost and the time of such upgrades make this a less practical solution than fuel cell-based vehicles.

Today, niche commercial vehicle manufacturers have already begun adopting hydrogen to offer vehicles with increased fuel efficiency and performance. As the market matures to higher volumes, larger OEMs are beginning to develop platforms that can deploy hydrogen fuel cell-powered commercial vehicles on a larger scale in the years to come.

Concurrently, there has been a global regulatory shift with many countries making significant commitments to reduce emissions. Across the board, there is a strong focus on reducing emissions from on-road and off-road vehicles, and hydrogen is identified as a key source of power to enable zero-emissions vehicles. As clean energy standards are implemented, they will drive infrastructure development, hydrogen availability and incentives for commercialization. Through the customer’s lens, this means increased viability and value proposition to adopt hydrogen because of better total cost of ownership.

Loop Energy has successfully commercialized a range of fuel cell solutions for many market applications. Photo provided by Loop Energy

To return to the premise at the beginning of this article, instead of saying fuel cells and batteries are better or worse, we now know different applications mean different solutions. For some applications, batteries will perform the best; for others, fuel cells will, not to mention unique applications will require battery-fuel cell hybrids for still other applications.  Instead of debating which technology is “better,” we should focus on producing products that meet customer demands for zero-emission products. The transition to zero-emission transportation, one of the most considerable disruptions of our lives, will happen much faster if we do so together.