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Hydrogen, not batteries, seen as the fuel for carbon-free trucking in the long run

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For all the focus on battery-powered trucks, Marrten Wetselaar told an audience at the world’s leading energy conference on March 11 that the future was elsewhere.

“For the decarbonization of heavy transport, there really is no alternative to hydrogen,” Wetselaar said at one of the opening sessions of the 2019 edition of CERAWeek, a gathering in Houston that brings together several thousand of the leading energy decision-makers from both government and private industry.

That theme – that it was going to be hydrogen powering the heavy vehicles of the future, not batteries – was heard later in a session hosted by various CERA officials to discuss the future of hydrogen.

Several conclusions were drawn from the roundtable as to why hydrogen will have advantages over batteries as the future unfolds.

– The first thing to know is that hydrogen does not exist as a stand-alone molecule in nature. It is always attached to something – think of H2O – and energy needs to be applied to separate the hydrogen molecule from whatever it is attached to. But what that means is that if the world is moving to – as one roundtable participant put it – “deep, deep decarbonization,” a low carbon source such as solar can be used as the energy source to produce hydrogen. Most current hydrogen is produced using a process called reforming with natural gas as the fuel and with steam as the source of the hydrogen molecules. But electrolysis is another process that uses water as a feedstock, and electricity as a fuel, also to produce hydrogen. In a vehicle, hydrogen is fed into a fuel cell to produce electrical energy. The waste product from the fuel cell process is water.

– Batteries are heavy. The battery capacity that will be needed in a truck adds a significant amount of weight to the vehicle. That is not the case with hydrogen, where the conversion of an internal combustion engine to a hydrogen-driven fuel cell adds little weight to the vehicle. However, it was also noted that the weight issue would not be too much of a deterrent in a personal vehicle and that battery electric vehicles would probably have a significant advantage over fuel cell electric vehicles in cars. But everything from drayage to the trucking needs of Amazon and Walmart were noted as strong options for hydrogen-powered fuel cells. (That doesn’t even begin to deal with the issues – not always pretty – of mining such battery metals as cobalt, which comes from some of the most strife-ridden parts of the world, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo).

– It’s versatile. Beyond just usage in heavy vehicles, hydrogen has advantages over batteries than can help spur the industry to greater growth. It can be used as a transport fuel; it can be used as a power-generating fuel; it can be stored for lengthy periods of time if, for example, renewable sources of energy allow the production of excess supply of hydrogen at one time of year. Storage by batteries remains one of the great dreams of the renewables industry but the hurdles of size and supply of battery metals remains an issue.

– One panelist presented interesting figures on the use of water as a raw material for separating hydrogen from H2O. The problem, of course, is that the process consumes water. The numbers presented at the conference seemed staggeringly small. California water consumption is about 80 million acre feet per year, an acre foot being what it sounds like – the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land with one foot of water. If all annual gasoline usage in that state turned to hydrogen “overnight,” the panel was told, it would consume one million acre feet of water. And even that doesn’t tell the whole story because if hydrogen completely displaced fossil fuels, water use by refineries would decline as well.

– If the power source for either the reforming process or the electrolysis process is a carbon-rich fossil fuel – such as electricity generated by coal – the impact of hydrogen use on decarbonization is effectively eliminated. It was noted through the day that hydrogen as a fuel has been around forever. It isn’t new but what is new is the push for decarbonization. If the source of the fuel is solar or water, that is where the decarbonization benefit comes from. Interestingly, there were few references to nuclear power to provide a power source for hydrogen production. On several occasions, nuclear was referred to as a baseload fuel for power generation – it is – and the processes needed to produce hydrogen would be considered either a peaking process or a sort of middle-way process. But hydrogen produced from nuclear would be effectively carbon-free.

– Charts were presented about the cost of producing hydrogen. But there are so many variables that any sort of conclusion at this point – CERA is engaged in studies that will look at the hydrogen markets for California, Europe and China – would be premature. For example, electrolysis has electricity as the energy source for extracting hydrogen. But electricity costs are far greater in Europe, so the cost curve there would be significantly different from that in the U.S. An additional cost issue is whether carbon capture and sequestration will be economically viable anytime soon and whether a reforming process to produce hydrogen using a fuel like natural gas or even coal would enable capture of the resulting CO2 emissions. Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is the holy grail of a strategy to reduce carbon emissions, but remain firmly in the experimental stage. Full CCS would enable hydrogen production from a variety of sources, some of them rich in carbon like coal, while not adding to CO2 emissions.

If that is all the good news, why isn’t hydrogen a key fuel now for transportation? The reasons are what they have long been – there is no regulatory scheme that rewards hydrogen as a fuel if it comes from a low-carbon process; storage on board a vehicle remains problematic; the price of the alternatives remain relatively cheap; and the refueling infrastructure barely exists. It’s why several speakers over the course of the day noted that a governmental role in the transition will be necessary for there to be a transition at all.

The discussions were notable in that there did not appear to be any more than one reference to Nikola Motors. Nikola reportedly has received more than $8 billion in pre-orders for its hybrid hydrogen and battery-powered tractors including a significant order form Anheuser Bush. A series of fueling stations also is part of Nikola’s plans.

John Kingston

John has an almost 40-year career covering commodities, most of the time at S&P Global Platts. He created the Dated Brent benchmark, now the world’s most important crude oil marker. He was Director of Oil, Director of News, the editor in chief of Platts Oilgram News and the “talking head” for Platts on numerous media outlets, including CNBC, Fox Business and Canada’s BNN. He covered metals before joining Platts and then spent a year running Platts’ metals business as well. He was awarded the International Association of Energy Economics Award for Excellence in Written Journalism in 2015. In 2010, he won two Corporate Achievement Awards from McGraw-Hill, an extremely rare accomplishment, one for steering coverage of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster and the other for the launch of a public affairs television show, Platts Energy Week.