This week’s Advanced Clean Transportation Expo expounded on two major electrification themes: the higher power and faster infrastructure critical to speed the adoption of battery-powered trucks, and the more rapid arrival of hydrogen-powered fuel cells, once laughed off as a science project always 10 years away.
Running a live conference during a resurgent pandemic
In Long Beach, California, this week, the Advanced Clean Transportation Expo managed to pull off a live event even as rising infections from the delta variant forced other events to cancel or go virtual. A few, starting with next January’s Consumer Electronics Show, warned that attendance would require proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test.
After warning exhibitors and attendees of local protocols like mask wearing inside the Long Beach Convention Center, ACT Expo organizers just days before the conference took the CES stance even though Los Angeles County won’t require the public health hurdle until after Sept. 20.
Conference organizers braced for blowback from anyone turned away who lost a hotel room deposit or shouldered other expenses. Outside the convention center, workers from 911 COVID administered 30-minute rapid antigen and antibody tests to about 300 people, fewer than conference organizers expected.
And the show went on.
Electrification reality check
The ACT Expo was more of a reality check on the electrification of trucking than a dreamscape of zero-emission technology. It wasn’t many years ago that the event focused on introductions of natural gas and other drop-in fuels offering minor improvements to air quality offset by less power.
That was then. This year, with more than 5,000 mask-wearing attendees giddy to be literally bumping elbows, the only number that really counted was zero. As in zero emissions from the tailpipe in battery-powered electric trucks (BETs) or from any source in the case of hydrogen. A smattering of fossil fuel-based technologies struggled for notice.
The pollution-pummeling California Air Resources Board and related agencies forked over tens of millions in subsidies for new electric trucks and the infrastructure to power them. Plenary sessions for BETs filled the largest of breakout rooms. An update on hydrogen trucks and infrastructure assigned to a room 60% as large attracted an overflow crowd that lined the back and side walls to hear from Nikola Corp. and Hyzon Motors executives.
Electrification reality check: Part II
On the four-day conference’s final day Thursday, a panel of heavy-duty truck startups — Nikola, Hyzon, Hyliion Holdings, Wrightspeed and BYD North America — set aside their competition to focus on what the nascent industry as a whole needs to be viable. A few samples:
“This is not a nice-to-have type of technology. This is a technology that is being pulled by private industry and by government. We think we’re in the right place at the right time.”Pablo Koziner, president, energy and commercial, Nikola Corp.
“By focusing on high-value usage and back-to-base operations where we can support with local production models of hydrogen, this will be something that we can do incrementally, very successfully, and it scales location by location instead of at one location. We prefer eating the elephant one bite at a time.”Craig Knight, CEO, Hyzon Motors
“The grid and electricity generation is a real problem. California is already having problems keeping lights on at home and keeping your refrigerator running, let alone putting trucks on the grid. The reality is that if you want to electrify all the trucks in California, you have to double the capacity of the grid.”Thomas Healy, CEO, Hyliion Holdings
Bill Bliem has learned enough about electric trucks that he knows how to plan to avoid so-called range anxiety: the fear of running out of juice and being stranded on the side of the road. But avoiding range anxiety isn’t the same as defeating it.
And Bliem, the senior vice president of fleet operations at NFI Industries, says that reality will hold back the growth of BETs.
“We don’t think we’re going to be able to do a large percentage of our fleet on battery electric,” he told me before the Expo announcement that NFI would get 50 heavily subsidized new electric Freightliner eCascadia and Volvo VNR Electric Class 8 trucks. “We’re going to need other zero emissions, specifically fuel cell.
“Just like battery electric, we’re picking and choosing who we’re talking to, and obviously Daimler and Volvo have that [Cellcentric] joint venture going and we’re pushing with them,” Bliem said. “We’re also pretty impressed with Nikola.”
It would take a breakthrough in battery technology to add energy density beyond the roughly 250 miles a modern BET can travel on a single charge. NFI is investing $16.8 million on top of state grants and assistance from Volkswagen’s Electrify America to install 34 super-fast chargers in Ontario, California.
“We don’t know how long these batteries are going to last. If these batteries only last five years, what do we do with the truck after five years? Do we put a new battery in it? Is it worth nothing? That’s all the stuff that we have to work through and figure out.”
Electric range has plateaued after years of increases, Bliem said.
“When we made those statements that anywhere from 25 to 40% of our fleet would be electric by 2025, we were referencing our entire fleet around the country of 2,500 tractors. We realize now that that’s not going to happen.”
How Hyzon Motors chose the US
When it came time to pick a location to spin out Hyzon Motors from Singapore-based Horizon Fuel Cell technologies, the choice came down to Europe or North America.
“I’ve lived in the U.S. previously,” Hyzon CEO Craig Knight told me last Sunday after letting FreightWaves have the first ride in the Freightliner Cascadia converted to run on a hydrogen-powered fuel cell. “Our chairman, George Gu, has lived in the U.S. previously. We felt the U.S. is more of a contiguous market. It’s a big contiguous market.”
Europe is farther along on decarbonization of truck transportation than the U.S., and when it comes to hydrogen adoption, the U.S. is “third wave” behind China, Asia, Europe and even Australia, he said. The competitive landscape was appealing. But there was something else.
“The U.S. market was attractive especially because in consulting with advisers and bankers, they said that they believed they could help us raise the kind of capital we needed in less than 12 months.”
Establishing headquarters near Rochester, New York, in July 2020 to merging with special purpose acquisition company Decarbonization Plus Acquisition Corp, to closing the business combination this July took exactly 12 months.
Hyzon got $550 million in SPAC proceeds but like most electrification startups, its stock has been hammered since. It fell 20% on its first day of trading July 19.
“We’ve got a fully funded business model,” Knight said. “We know how to run a business. We know how to make fuel cells. We know how to be judicious with capital.”
And, unlike many pre-revenue startups, Hyzon has a parent in Singapore with resources and relationships to help smooth the way.
“The reality is that global supply chains would not enable us to set up our manufacturing before the end of this year on fuel cell systems as planned,” Knight said. “These machines are months late. So, we have fuel cells being purchased from Horizon on an arm’s length basis and we put them in our trucks. It doesn’t slow us down at all.”
That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading. Sign up here to get Truck Talk via email on Fridays.