Truckers Are Tracking Hydrogen

Hydrogen-fueled trucks have longer range and speedier refueling than battery-cell technology.

November 20, 2023

Many trucking companies are looking to overhaul their fleets to meet imminent requirements for zero-emission commercial trucks in California, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Beginning January 1, new trucks purchased in California for use at the state’s seaports will be required to be zero-emission vehicles. The state is also requiring that a growing share of truck sales and fleets in the state run on clean fuels, with a goal of phasing out diesel-fueled big rigs by 2035.

While many are focused on EV technology for trucks, which essentially bulks up electric-vehicle technology from the passenger-car industry for 18-wheelers, hydrogen power is gaining a following.

Hydrogen offers longer trips (up to 500 miles) and faster refueling (about 30 minutes) than battery-cell technology, supporters say, while allowing trucks to haul heavier loads because they aren’t carrying industrial-scale batteries. But the development of hydrogen vehicle technology and fueling infrastructure remain years behind battery-electric trucks, and regulatory demands are bearing down on the carriers.

Hydrogen fuel-cell and battery-electric rigs cost about $450,000, triple that of a diesel-fueled rigs, but there can be some cost relief for purchases through state and local grants.

Jim Gillis, president of the Pacific region for Tennessee-based IMC, will receive his first hydrogen electric fuel-cell Nikola trucks in the coming weeks, long before the technology is proven and a refueling network is set up.  

“I am always worried about first-generation technology,” said Gillis, who expects to be running 50 of the rigs by the end of 2024. “As fancy as it all looks, I know going into it that we are going to have some problems.”

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, there are currently 57 retail hydrogen locations in California and one in Hawaii.

California has some of the most stringent rules in the country for diesel trucks, and industry experts say similar mandates in other states are likely to follow as regulators watch the state’s rollout.

The regulations also have triggered a run-on diesel-fueled rigs as carriers add to their fleets before the ban on new diesel trucks at ports takes effect.