What's the alternative? A look at hydrogen, natural gas and zero-emissions trucks

What’s the alternative? A look at hydrogen, natural gas and zero-emissions trucks

Physicists tend to be long-term thinkers. If you recall, I mentioned in January 2010 that we would eventually end up using hydrogen fuel for our vehicles and nuclear energy to generate electricity.

I also mentioned that gaseous fuels made perfect sense as an interim alternative fuel for our fleets. I had high hopes for algae-based fuels, but, to date, researchers have not been able to produce algae-based fuels as inexpensively as the competition.

I’ve been encouraged lately by fleet and OEM researchers evaluating hydrogen fuel cells as vehicular fuel. Remember, Freightliner developed a hydrogen fuel cell to provide sleeper power a decade ago. But the problem with fuel cells has always been making them large enough to generate sufficient power to operate a large vehicle.

Daimler and Hyundai seem to be the furthest along with application of hydrogen fuel cells to powering vehicle. Hyundai is currently field testing hydrogen fuel cell-powered taxicabs in Paris. Daimler tends to be quieter about its testing.

Hydra Energy in Canada is now saying they will convert any vehicle to run on hydrogen fuel free of charge. They will utilize hydrogen generated from various industrial processes, which could be good for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but I’m just not sure if they can collect sufficient hydrogen to power a large number of vehicles.

Nikola is touting their new tractor as hydrogen-fueled, but the hydrogen they use is produced by burning fossil fuels. These trucks should realize a 20% to 25% reduction in GHG emissions. But, the Nikola trucks are only a stop-gap solution. These trucks are not zero emissions vehicles.

I’m certain we will hear much more about hydrogen fuel cells as time progresses. We must be careful which solution we want to adopt.

In the nearer term, large fleets are investing heavily in natural gas. UPS spent $100 million on CNG last year. It currently has 31 fueling stations, and it is planning six more. It is also planning to purchase about 400 new CNG vehicles and 50 LNG vehicles soon. When completed, UPS will have approximately 5,000 gaseous fueled vehicles in its fleet. It used 61 million gallons of natural gas in 2016, including 4.6 million gallons of renewable natural gas.

Smaller fleets can’t afford to invest as heavily as UPS does, but we continually hear about fleets and municipalities who are evaluating gaseous fueled vehicles. When the price of ultra low-sulfur diesel fuel goes back up (notice I said “when,” not “if”), we will see a significant increase in activity.

Electric vehicles are still being touted as “zero emissions.” I get so tired of hearing that. At least one-third of the electrical power is currently being generated from burning coal, and that isn’t going to change much in the next four years. California claims that 20% of its electrical power is generated by using renewable fuel sources, but as Mark Twain once said, “figures don’t lie, but liars can figure.”

Electric vehicles will be, at best, only niche players. They make sense in urban environments, but they will always have range and cost issues. Electric motors powered by an energy source other than charged batteries makes better sense. I wonder if solar panels on top of dry vans would generate sufficient power to keep trucks operating.

I’m still waiting for someone to suggest a wind turbine in front of a truck to keep the vehicle running. Could this be a perpetual motion machine?

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