Hydrogen Holds Long-Haul Trucking Promise But Faces Challenges

March 18, 2019 by Susan Carpenter, @CarpenterWheels

Battery-electric vehicles have gotten most of the attention when it comes to replacing diesel trucks with zero emissions, but there’s a growing consensus that they have limited capability for long-haul freight.

“The equipment we’ve tested has a range of 100 miles, and that just won’t work for trucking,” said Chris Cannon, chief sustainability officer for the Port of Los Angeles, where 10,000-15,000  trucks operate daily.

As freight moves farther from the nation’s largest port complex to the rest of California and the nation, trucks need more range than can be easily provided by battery-powered vehicles.

“Hydrogen offers that,” Cannon said.

Chris Cannon, sustainability officer for Ports of L.A. and Long Beach

Chris Cannon

Cannon was one of a handful of speakers Thursday at a webinar hosted by the California Hydrogen Business Council.


Citing a United Nations intergovernmental panel on climate change from October 2018, CHBC development specialist Cory Shumaker said, “We have 12 years to keep (temperatures from rising) between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius, above which catastrophic effects will happen along coastlines where ports are located.”

Shumaker’s comments echoed a report on sea level rise from the U.S. Geological Survey, which found that sea levels around the Ports of L.A. and Long Beach could rise by as much as 30 inches by the end of the century.

“Ports around the world are looking at potential solutions for decarbonization and reducing air pollution,” Shumaker said.

“We need to transition drayage trucks to near zero in the short term and ultimately zero emissions by 2035,” Cannon said. To help meet those goals, he said, the ports will start charging a fee to cargo owners who don’t use the cleanest technologies available.

“We hope that’ll help to push the trucking industry to begin to buy cleaner equipment,” he said. The ports will also launch a smog-check pilot program “to confirm emissions from existing technologies are what they say they are.”


Ports can’t regulate anything, “but they can institute fees to access the port, so if you have an electric truck you don’t pay the fee,” said Jim Mele, author of the Wards Intelligence Megatrends Trucking 2019 report. “Or they can offer incentives.”

Those incentives exist from a variety of sources, including the California Air Resources Board, the Volkswagen (diesel fraud) beneficiary mitigation plan and U.S. Department of Energy Title 17 projects. Still, hydrogen fuel cell truck costs remain prohibitive.

“Both the equipment and the fuel are expensive,” Cannon said. “The equipment is a good 20 to 25 percent more expensive than battery electric right now.”

Nikola Motor’s hydrogen-powered Class 8 truck will retail for $375,000 when it goes into production. The battery-electric Tesla Semi comes with a $180,000 price tag for the 500-mile version, which is about $60,000 more than a comparable diesel truck.


And then there’s the matter of fuel. Right now, hydrogen fuel is subsidized to make it affordable, “but the people who make it say the price is high,” Cannon said. “The cost you’re paying is not reflective of the cost of the actual fuel.”

The Ports of L.A. and Long Beach are currently part of a hydrogen pilot program with Toyota, Kenworth, UPS and Shell in which 10 fuel-cell trucks are being tested. Shell is installing two hydrogen-fueling stations.

“Looking forward, we need to continue to do demonstrations to show the viability in the heavy-duty sector,” Cannon said.


While the move toward hydrogen at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach is voluntary, it comes at a time when California lawmakers are considering a phase-out of diesel trucks. A measure proposed in early March by State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, would require a 40 percent reduction in diesel emissions by 2030 and 80 percent reduction by 2050. Such cuts would not be possible without a mass conversion of diesel trucks to zero-emissions models, including hydrogen fuel cells.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, trucks and heavy- and medium-duty buses account for 20 percent of the state’s carbon emissions and produce 33 percent of the state’s nitrogen oxides.

At the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which instituted their Clean Air Action Plan in 2016 to help reduce emissions, emissions reductions are mostly ahead of schedule. Since 2016, the ports have reduced diesel particulate matter by 87 percent and nitrogen oxides by 59 percent, Cannon said.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said experts were concerned that sea levels would be 30 inches by the end of the century. 

John O'Dell February 18, 2019
Nikola Motor founder Trevor Milton talks about the company’s investors, the war of words with Elon Musk and Nikola’s future in a candid Trucks.com interview.

4 Responses

  1. Robert

    Diesel trucks don’t account for 30% it’s a load of garbage. With the thousands of cars on the road I’m not buying it. Plus, before DEF was forced on Diesel engines, it was proven they are cleaner without emission controls than cars even with all of the emissions junk on today’s cars. The misconception was that smog was released from trucks based on sight of the black smoke. It’s not true. Climate change is a load of liberal crap too. The planet is evolving and with evolution comes change in temperature. We are led to believe this stuff is necessary and the only thing it accomplished was making someone very rich developing new technology. It’s been studied and proven California pushing for DEF is doing more damage than good. Redwood trees and honey bees are dying because of the ammonia in DEF. California went to the EPA to reverse the law requiring it on all 2008 and newer Diesel engines and the EPA laughed at them.

    • Chris

      Particulate matter from diesel is one of the leading causes of airborne illnesses including heart attacks and strokes. That’s not a liberal issue or a conservative issue, that’s a health issue. Asthma, COPD are illnesses caused by poor air quality.

      Glad to see technology progressing so that heavy duty trucking does not need continue to cause health problems.

    • Danny

      This group that claim to be Scientist claim the EPA is promoting fake information? The EPA multi-year regional studies for our State’s highways use “measurements” to determine that all transportation accounts for 41% of the emissions mentioned above. Auto’s were roughly half. Concerned Poindexter groups that depend on a government funded check must abandon the scientific method and agree to politically correct terms. Reporters might actually quote multiple sources that provide actual studies rather than basing an entire conclusion on a poorly or non-existent “study”. Quoting an organization’s opinion that claims the EPA measurements and multi-year study are fake is wrong.


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