An ambitious development plan by a Salt Lake City clean-trucking start-up could do more to jump-start sales of hydrogen fuel cell passenger cars than all the marketing efforts of automotive giants Toyota and Honda.
Earlier this month, Nikola Motor Co. said it would roll out a nationwide network of hydrogen fueling stations to support its upcoming Nikola One hydrogen fuel cell electric semi-truck. The web of 364 stations, which will be accessible to other fuel cell vehicles, will start construction in January 2018 and begin opening in late 2019, said Trevor Milton, Nikola’s chief executive.
Such a system barely exists, and in just one state, California. And even then, a cluster of stations in Southern California has a tenuous link to a similar grouping in the San Francisco Bay Area – a single station midway on Interstate 5 at Harris Ranch in Coalinga.
The absence of easily reachable hydrogen filling stations is perhaps the key barrier preventing wider adoption of fuel cell passenger cars, experts said. Fuel cell cars like the Toyota Mirai sedan have a range just north of 300 miles.
Toyota, Honda, Hyundai and other automakers are developing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles because of their environmental appeal. Nikola believes the technology is ideally suited to long-haul trucking because of its utility and environmental footprint. Milton said the powertrain in the Nikola One truck will produce 1,000 horsepower, generate 2,000 pound-feet of torque and travel 800 miles or more between fillings. Toyota, which already is building fuel cell buses, also is working on a hydrogen truck.
Hydrogen vehicles have no tailpipe emissions other than heat and water. Fueling with pressurized hydrogen takes about the same time as a gasoline vehicle.
A key drawback is that most hydrogen is created using fossil fuels, diminishing some of the environmental benefits. But when hydrogen is produced with renewable energy, it’s exceptionally clean. Fuel for the Nikola stations will come from solar hydrogen farms owned by the company.
Automakers have tinkered with the technology for years. Toyota Motor Corp. unveiled the Mirai — which means “the future” in Japanese — back in 2014. The automaker has sold fewer than 1,000 in the U.S. – entirely in California – through November, according to Autodata Corp., an industry research firm.
“The demand is there, but it can only go as far as the station availability,” said Ash Corson, manager of advanced fuels vehicles for Toyota. “Stimulating growth of infrastructure is a main focus for us.”
Hyundai Motor America, which offers a $499-a-month lease for its Tucson Fuel Cell SUV, doesn’t plan to build its own stations but isn’t ruling out future partnerships, said spokesman Derek Joyce.
“These are complex stations, but they’re definitely coming along,” Joyce said. “The vehicle is ready, as are competitors — and as the infrastructure grows, it can really take off.”
Between 2008 and 2014, Honda Motor Co. leased 46 FCX Clarity fuel cell sedans in the U.S. to explore the market. The automaker just launched a new generation Clarity at 12 California dealerships within 10 miles of a hydrogen fueling station, making the first deliveries to customers this week.
Daimler is launching a new fuel cell vehicle based on the Mercedes-Benz GLC next year, with a lithium-ion battery as a backup energy source. Volkswagen Group’s Audi brand also plans to jump into the market.
Fuel cell vehicles are pricier than conventional cars and hybrids, though costs are dropping, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Some experts believe that battery electric vehicle advancements will eventually render fuel cell transport moot.
But if a fueling infrastructure gets off the ground, many argue that fuel cell vehicles can be a dominant player on the alternative energy highway.
More than 20 million hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will be sold globally by 2032, generating sales of up to $1.2 trillion, according to a September report from Washington, D.C., market research firm Information Trends. By 2050, they’ll constitute the fastest-growing segment of the auto market, the researchers said.
Solving the fueling conundrum has contributed to the success of electric car builder Tesla Motors. The Palo Alto, Calif., automaker built its Supercharger Network, which features charging docks located near restaurants, shopping centers and Wi-Fi hot spots. Now, there are 751 stations with 4,749 nodes scattered across the country, with plans to double that figure by the end of 2017.
Charging at the stations is free for now. Tesla owners whose cars are delivered starting in 2017 will get roughly 1,000 miles gratis, followed by a fee smaller than the price of filling up a comparable gasoline car, according to the automaker.
Nikola is attempting the same gambit. The company is working with Bennett, a Spring Lake, Mich., pump manufacturer with experience making dispensers for liquid and compressed natural gas as well as hydrogen.
Overseas, the hydrogen fueling infrastructure is further developed.
Denmark has national fueling coverage. Germany, Britain and several other European countries aren’t far behind. But according to the report, Japan is by far the most bullish on the technology. It expects to have a network of stations built by the time the country hosts the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
In the U.S., there are plans for much of the Eastern Seaboard to have some semblance of a hydrogen fueling network by 2025. Between Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont, government officials plan to have 10,828 fuel cell vehicles on the road (hundreds of them in state fleets), with 122 fueling stations to support them.
Toyota is collaborating with French industrial gases company Air Liquide to help build a dozen of those stations in the Northeast. Those are set to come online starting next year.
In California, where the governor has mandated that the state’s infrastructure support a million zero-emissions vehicles by 2020, 331 hydrogen fuel cell cars were registered with the state as of April. The number is expected to reach 13,500 vehicles in 2019 and 43,600 vehicles by 2022.
About 30 fueling stations are expected to be online by the end of the year. Many of them are funded by a $46.6-million investment made in 2014 by the California Energy Commission.
Currently, hydrogen refueling stations can cost more than $3 million to build, while electric vehicle charging stations are relatively inexpensive, according to data firm IHS Automotive.
The cost of building hydrogen stations is expected to decline as more are built and not every component must be custom manufactured, said Paul Dillon, chief financial officer of Los Angeles-based station builder HyGen Industries Inc.
Finding locations is difficult.
“When you’re trying to convince a property owner to put in a hydrogen station instead of a car wash and he’s never heard of hydrogen, that’s a bit challenging,” said Shane Stephens, founder of FirstElement Fuel Inc., a Newport Beach, Calif., filling station company.
Nikola – and other companies – will face real estate, permitting and other challenges as they pull together a comprehensive, nationwide hydrogen fueling network, but they aren’t overreaching.
“There’s nothing technically that needs to be invented for them to do that,” Dillon said of Nikola’s ambitions. “A lot of capital is required to do it, but it’s certainly doable.”