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How a Nikola exec went from ‘oil brat’ to zero emissions

Long before she joined a company developing zero-emissions trucks, oil featured prominently in Elizabeth Fretheim’s life. She lived in six countries by the age of seven because of her father’s work in the industry.

“I was an oil brat,” the head of business development at Nikola Motor Company told attendees at Transparency19 in Atlanta on May 7.

But Fretheim had a realization 15 years ago while working on a project to design and build a workforce hotel in the oil sands of northern Alberta, Canada. She saw the massive tailings ponds left behind from the extraction process. “I was crushed,” she said.

“I had been eating at the energy buffet and needed to get back to the French restaurant,” Fretheim said. “I changed what I wanted to do.”

“I had been eating at the energy buffet and needed to get back to the French restaurant.”

Fretheim later joined Walmart as senior director of supply chain sustainability. She was tasked with doubling fleet efficiency.

“We were able to achieve it in about 10 years. Proving that sustainability could make business sense, we saved the company about $1 billion a year,” Fretheim said.

At Nikola, Fretheim works with fleets to transition to the company’s forthcoming zero-emissions trucks, which will launch with hydrogen fuel cell models.

“I believe we are building trucks that will compete with diesel,” Fretheim said.

Working with fleets to deploy hydrogen fueling stations

In a conversation with John Paul Hampstead, associate editor of FreightWaves, Fretheim noted that interest in Nikola trucks extends from large fleets to owner-operators.

“They really want to understand this technology,” Fretheim said.

Fretheim also explained that Nikola opted to launch hydrogen fuel cell models before electric to serve fleets that conduct long hauls or need to do quick turnarounds.

“I don’t want to say one is better than the other,” she said.  

Nikola is working on building a network of 700 hydrogen fueling stations that will cover the United States and Canada during the next decade, starting in California. The placement of those stations will depend on the needs of fleets, Fretheim said.

“We need to do this in a structured and strategic way, so we’re going to be working with our customers, and really grow with them as we look at where these stations will be,” Fretheim said.

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Nate Tabak, Canada Correspondent

Nate Tabak is a journalist, editor and producer in Toronto. He covers Canada for FreightWaves, with a keen interest on the cross-border economic relationship with the United States. Nate spent seven years working as an investigative editor and reporter based in Kosovo. He covered everything from corruption to the country’s emerging wine industry. He also reported across the Balkans and investigated Albania’s multibillion-dollar marijuana industry with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Nate grew up in Berkeley, Calif. He enjoys exploring Toronto with his wife and is always looking forward to his next meal.

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