Hydrogen trucks
Freight transportation accounts for almost 70 per cent of diesel fuel demand in Alberta alone and contributes some 12 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year in the province and about nine per cent of Canada’s total.

With federal funding to build a hydrogen fuelling station in Edmonton, all the pieces are now in place to start testing Canadian-made, heavy-duty, hydrogen fuel cell trucks carrying real-world payloads on a 700-kilometre route in 2022

On June 3, the federal government announced it will spend $2.3 million to build a hydrogen fuelling station in Edmonton. The investment is the final, essential key needed to initiate a groundbreaking venture designed to showcase the potential of hydrogen fuel cells for powering heavy-duty vehicles in Canada.

In addition to the fuelling station, the $9.2-million Alberta Zero Emissions Truck Electrification Collaboration (AZETEC) project involves the design and manufacture of two Canadian-made, heavy-duty, hydrogen fuel cell electric hybrid trucks that will transport freight year-round between Edmonton and Calgary in 2022.

At a virtual news conference to announced the initiative, Seamus O’Regan Jr., Canada’s minister of natural resources, explained, “The hydrogen fuelling station will allow us to see how this technology performs on the coldest, bitterest winter days and in the height of summer heatwaves. It’s a game changer.”

Designed to travel up to 700 kilometres between refuelling stops, the 64-tonne, B-train tractor-trailers will be the first vehicles of their size and capacity built and tested in the world. By the end of the project, they will have travelled more than 500,000 carbon-free kilometres and carried about 20 million tonne-kilometres of freight along a commercial corridor.

Unprecedented distance

“I don’t know of any other heavy-duty, hydrogen-fuelled trucks running that long a distance,” observes Mike Roeth, executive director of the Indiana-based North American Council of Freight Efficiency. “There are some hydrogen-fuelled trucks working around Los Angeles, but they are all short-hauls. The distance travelled in this case and the ability to do it in minus-30 degrees weather would be an important development. A electric-powered truck in minus-30 would probably not be able to make 300 miles [500 kms].”

The trucks will require 20-45 minutes to fully refuel (depending on certain conditions) and will be cheaper to run than existing diesel transports. They’ll also demonstrate Canadian capabilities. Suncor Energy is supplying the hydrogen from its Edmonton refinery; B.C.-based Ballard Power Systems is furnishing the hydrogen fuel cell units and overseeing the design of the storage system, while Dana Inc., a global leader in heavy-duty electric axles, will provide the drivetrain and e-propulsion technologies from its operations in Quebec.

The Albertan demo is regarded as a key step in alerting the public and industry players to the advantages offered by hydrogen fuel for heavy-duty vehicles, which comprise one of the most difficult sectors of the transportation economy to decarbonize. But shifting toward zero emissions technology is vital, as the heavy-duty freight transportation sector is one of Canada’s largest contributors of greenhouse gas emissions. Freight transportation accounts for almost 70 per cent of diesel fuel demand in Alberta alone and contributes some 12 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year in the province and about nine per cent of Canada’s total.

Real-world perspective

Presently, there are only a handful of heavy-duty hydrogen-powered trucks operating in North America. This means getting a real-world perspective on this alternative energy source is difficult, and it also makes it hard for fleets to start building business cases and planning for eventual adoption.

The AZETEC project hopes to change that situation. As Steve Macdonald, CEO of Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA), a not-for-profit corporation that contributed just over $7 million to the venture, explains: “The project helps bridge the technology gap for heavy-duty, long range transportation that currently can’t be met by battery-powered vehicles. It drives market awareness and acceptance of hydrogen technology.”

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles offer several competitive advantages over battery-powered electric vehicles, including greater load-carrying capacity, longer driving ranges and shorter fuelling times — all major concerns in the trucking industry.

“Having refuelling times that are roughly approximate to diesel is important because a lot of the trucking business is dependent on ‘on-demand fuelling,’ which means the trucks need to refuel as fast as possible and immediately get back on the road,” notes Ben Sharpe, senior researcher and Canada lead at the San Francisco-based International Council on Clean Transportation.

According to Chris Nash, president of the Alberta Motor Transport Association (AMTA), which is spearheading the endeavour, the weights carried and distances travelled by the trucks will be key factors in showcasing the effectiveness of the new technology, as will the harsh Alberta climate where temperatures range from minus 40 to plus 40. “If it works here, it will work anywhere,” says Nash.

Sharpe echoes Nash’s observation. “It’s really important to prove that the hydrogen technology is robust and able to carry these loads at the highest end of the payload spectrum because the current battery technology is not economically viable for heavy trucks. The size of the battery you would need is simply too large as it cuts into the value of the payload you are carrying.

Other recent pilots

Canada is not the only place in the world experimenting with this technology. This month, the Port of Los Angeles rolled out five new hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric vehicles and introduced two hydrogen fuelling stations. Under the US$82.5-million Shore-to-Store project, the port has teamed up with more than a dozen public and private sector partners for a 12-month demonstration of zero-emissions Class 8 trucks. Further plans will see five more hydrogen heavy-duty trucks, two battery-electric yard tractors, and two battery-electric forklifts added.

In Europe, Hyundai is deploying 1,000 fuel cell commercial trucks in Switzerland, and rival truck makers, Daimler and Volvo recently announced a new joint venture, called Cellcentric, to test fuel cell trucks in about three years and start mass producing trucks in the second half of this decade. Meanwhile, China is promoting the adoption of hydrogen vehicles in selected trial regions as it sets up an ecosystem that includes hydrogen production, storage, transportation and refuelling.

The participants in the AZETEC project hope it will pave the way towards broader decarbonization in the transportation sector and kickstart a hydrogen economy in Canada. “Hydrogen’s moment has come, and Canada is leading the way,” declared O’Regan. “Using hydrogen in heavy-duty trucking will lower emissions, increase our competitiveness and drive clean economic growth. This is how we get to net zero by 2050.”

  1. The article doesn’t indicate how the fuel will be sourced. Will it be green hydrogen?

  2. “Suncor Energy is supplying the hydrogen from its Edmonton refinery”. Presuming this is “gray” hydrogen, not “blue” (with carbon capture & geological storage)? Gray hydrogen will be more emissions intensive than diesel, as I understand it. https://www.carbonbrief.org/in-depth-qa-does-the-world-need-hydrogen-to-solve-climate-change
    A very interesting pilot, of course. But supplies of zero emissions hydrogen will be required. Hopefully plans for zero emissions blue hydrogen actually pan out.

  3. Hydrogen is not a good source for energy and a hydrogen economy is not practical. The efficiency of green hydrogen is only about 20-30%, whereas battery electric vehicles are 85-95% efficient. We should stop chasing a solution that physics and chemistry tells us will never be practical.

  4. Hydrogen from a Suncor refinery? Then it is almost certainly gray hydrogen with CO2 from the natural gas. No ‘green’ here.

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