Fuel cell technology can breathe new life – and clean air – into the trucking industry. But without hydrogen, fuel cell trucks are just parking lot ornaments.
Nikola Motor Chief Executive Trevor Milton plans to solve that problem through a strategy of bundling truck, fuel and maintenance expenses into a single long-term lease.
The plan to combine the major cost items of truck ownership and operation into a single monthly lease payment requires a million-mile lease at a cost of 95 cents per mile, or $950,000 for the life of the lease – typically seven years.
Central to the package is Nikola’s ability to provide ample, inexpensive cheap hydrogen in many locations so Nikola’s Class 8 trucks will have fuel wherever they go.
Norwegian hydrogen systems developer NEL ASA will help develop the stations and supply hydrogen production and other equipment.
Nikola has booked more than 13,000 advance orders, but they are not binding. And while that could translate into big business for a single company, they represent a small part of the heavy-duty truck market.
Many motor carriers want to see Nikola’s hydrogen infrastructure up and running before committing.
The company has designed “a great-looking truck, and the technology is certainly promising,” said Marcus Lionetti, director of fleet operations for AJR Trucking, a Compton, Calif., port drayage and U.S. Postal Service mail hauler.
“But fuel cells are going to be a tough sell without the infrastructure, so we’ll have to wait and see” on Nikola’s promise, Lionetti told Trucks.com.
“We are all for new technology,” and AJR is partnering with Peterbilt and Kenworth to test new battery-electric and compressed natural gas trucks, he said.
Nikola plans to build a network of 700 truck stop-size hydrogen fuel stations across the U.S. and Canada by 2028.
The typical facility would occupy seven to 10 acres of land. Nikola would purchase some of the properties and lease others, Milton said. The company did not provide an estimate of what it expects the stations to cost.
The initial stations would be located near the major warehouse or truck-park facilities of Nikola customers such as Anheuser-Busch and U.S. Xpress, a large motor carrier.
The company has built a small demonstration station at its new headquarters and research and development center in Phoenix, Ariz. It plans to open a larger one – still for research and data gathering – in nearby Chandler next year.
The first commercial station would open in 2021 in California, adjacent to an as-yet unnamed customer’s main facility, said Jesse Schneider, Nikola’s executive vice president for hydrogen and fuel cell technology.
Nikola, which is still testing, plans to begin building production versions of its trucks by late 2022 and will have 10 hydrogen stations up and running by then, Schneider said. Construction of the remaining North American stations would be spread over the next six years.
European stations would be added after Nikola launches its Euro-spec Nikola Tre heavy truck in 2023.
COSTS AND CAVEATS
The cost of Nikola’s $950,000 truck-lease deal could change by the time the company is producing trucks. It has already crept up. Milton talked about a 90-cents-per-mile lease when he started to outline the strategy several years ago.
The current 95-cents-per-mile estimate is predicated on getting the cost of hydrogen “fuel” down to about $6 per kilogram, said Kim Brady, Nikola’s chief financial officer.
That, in turn, depends on Nikola’s ability to provide electrical power for about 4 cents per kilowatt-hour.
That’s 40 percent less than the present 6.7 cents per kWh national average for electricity used in industrial applications.
To achieve the cost reduction, Nikola plans to produce much of its power itself, using solar panels and wind turbines, installed when possible at the individual hydrogen stations, Schneider said.
Station sizes would vary, but most would be a standard size that can make up to eight tons of hydrogen per day. They would store and dispense up to 10 tons, or 9,091 kilograms. That’s the energy equivalent of about 7,300 gallons of diesel. Hydrogen is dispensed by weight and measured in kilograms – with one kilogram containing the energy equivalent of 0.8 gallon of diesel.
Nikola plans to purchase renewable energy from outside suppliers if additional electrical power were needed to run a station’s equipment. The company also may build its own solar farms in several remote locations to distribute renewable energy directly to some of its stations, Schneider said.
Each of the filling stations would include a building housing the hydrogen-production equipment, storage tanks and compressors. Each also would have a chilling facility for the gas, which heats up when compressed and must be cooled before it can be dispensed.
Many of the stations also would have service bays staffed by Ryder System, Nikola’s maintenance partner.
Ryder also will provide service at its own maintenance facilities – there are more than 800 – and is training its 6,000-plus technicians to work on Nikola’s fuel cell trucks, said Dennis Cooke, president of Ryder’s Fleet Management Solutions unit.
Each standard hydrogen station would have eight dispensers for heavy duty trucks – capable of pumping 176 pounds (80 kilograms) of compressed hydrogen gas, the amount needed to fill an empty Nikola truck’s tank, in 10 minutes.
Nikola also plans to provide four dispensers for hydrogen fuel cell passenger vehicles and light trucks at each station.
The company wants to encourage development of fuel cell vehicles and would allow other manufacturers’ trucks, fuel cell passenger vehicles now being made by Toyota, Honda and Hyundai, and any future hydrogen passenger vehicle models, to use its stations, Milton said.
The stations would be able to fuel up to 150 trucks and 200 passenger cars per day, said Jon André Løkke, NEL’s chief executive officer.
Anticipating a hydrogen future, he said the stations are designed to be scaled up to handle four times that amount and to produce up to 32 tons of hydrogen per day.
The stations would have electric vehicle chargers, both standard 240-volt models and so-called fast chargers for quick battery top-ups of vehicles equipped to handle such high voltage.
They would be for cars as well as for competitors’ battery-electric trucks – such as the long-promised Tesla Semi – and Nikola’s own battery-dependent models.
Nikola plans to make a battery-electric version of its day-cab trucks, the Nikola Two in North America and the Nikola Tre in Europe. They are for customers who don’t need the long- range capabilities made possible by refillable hydrogen fuel cell electric trucks.
Nikola is technology-neutral when it comes to how the electricity gets on board an electric truck, Milton said. He expects fuel cell electric trucks to account for at least 80 percent of the company’s sales and battery electric models for 20 percent or less.