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The Future of Hydrogen-Powered Vehicles in the US: A Realistic Solution for Clean Energy

Automotive | Jul, 2023

Hydrogen fuel is enjoying an unprecedented momentum as emphasis on clean and secure energy future is growing. The light, storable, energy-dense hydrogen fuel is considered environment-friendly as it produces no direct emission of pollutants or greenhouse gases. Every year, a typical passenger vehicle emits around 4.6 metric tons of CO2 in the United States. In addition, the transportation sector is one of the largest contributors of US GHG emissions, accounting for over 29% of the net US greenhouse gas emissions. While zero-emission vehicles for public use have gained rapid traction in past years, largely dominated by battery-electric vehicles (BEVs), now the automakers and governments are looking more favorably at hydrogen to cut down emissions. Besides, the increasing popularity of key components for batteries such as nickel, cobalt, and lithium are shifting from BEVs to hydrogen cars. However, the proportion of EVs are still high when compared to hydrogen vehicles. Till data, more than 2.5 million EVs have been sold in the United States whereas only 15000 hydrogen-powered vehicles can be found on the US roads, mostly in California as the state has a wide network of retail hydrogen fueling stations.

Initiatives for Hydrogen-Powered Vehicles by Auto Manufacturers

Even car manufacturers are heavily investing in hydrogen fuel cell cars to propel sustainable mobility forward. As a part of preparations to phase out fossil fuels, major automakers like BMW and Audi are presently developing hydrogen fuel cell passenger vehicle prototypes. Toyota has been steadfast in developing fuel-cell vehicles, launching one of the world’s first mass-produced fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) that showcased hydrogen potential for zero-emission driving. In 2022, Toyota sold 2,094 Mirai, registering 20% Y-o-Y growth over 2021, owing to increasing appetite for cleaner vehicles and rapid progress in hydrogen infrastructure. In December 2022, Toyota developed a hydrogen fuel cell version of its best-selling Hilux pickup, which will be ready for small-scale production in the near future. German manufacturer, BMW announced its next focus: An all-hydrogen version of the BMW X5. Leveraging the power of hydrogen, BMW aims to address the challenges associated with EV infrastructure, integrating advanced technologies to deliver efficient and emission-free driving. Currently, the BMW iX5 is on the road for trial and demonstration.

Hyundai Motor has also entered into the hydrogen game introducing the first fuel cell-powered SUV, Hyundai NEXO. In its fifth year of production, the South Korean vehicle manufacturer has helped eliminate more than 14 million miles of vehicle emissions. The auto manufacturer plans to reveal significant improvements for the 2024 Nexo, which is expected to feature third-generation fuel cell stack and an impressive range of nearly 500 miles. Japanese motor company Honda announced plans for its electrification push, which included plans to begin producing fuel cell vehicles in 2024 with a plug-in hybrid CR-V. As a part of the initiative focused on aiming for zero tailpipe emissions by 2036, Jaguar Land Rover has been developing a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle based on Land Rover Defender SUV featuring electric drive units, a fuel cell stack, a large battery for energy recuperation, and a high-pressure hydrogen tank.

Heavy-duty Trucks Drive Clean Hydrogen to The Next Level

The long-haul freight transport sector seems difficult to decarbonize due to long distance and strict time requirements. Switching to batteries might create challenges such as how often batteries need charging, how fast they charge, as well as the availability of the charging infrastructure. Besides, the batteries used in trucks are heavy and large, which might affect the amount of cargo needed to be transported and how far the vehicle can travel without recharging. Using high energy density hydrogen can lead to the need for fewer batteries on a truck, which enables one to travel long distances and cope with heavy payloads. Hydrogen enables one to refuel their vehicle much quicker and thus improves operational flexibility of the trucks. Besides, hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric vehicles produce no emissions, just water vapor and warm air. Hence, hydrogen-powered trucks are picking up steam in the United States. However, first adopters face cost barriers and risks that require federal support to overcome.

In March 2022, Chris Coons introduced the bill called Hydrogen for Trucks Act of 2022 to establish a grant program for supporting the adoption of heavy-duty hydrogen trucks and hydrogen fueling stations. If passed, the government would be allocating UD200 million from 2023 to 2027 under this program. The bill is the latest addition to the Coons-Coryn Hydrogen Infrastructure Initiative, a package of bills intended to support the deployment of hydrogen technologies, especially in carbon intensive sectors. The bill would also help make hydrogen technologies more affordable and accessible so that businesses and consumers can utilize this reliable energy source and accelerate transition to clean energy.

Some of the intriguing developments in the industry are as follows.

  • Cellcentric, an evenly split joint venture between Daimler Truck and Volvo Group created in 2021 aims to produce, develop, and commercialize hydrogen fuel cell systems for long-haul trucking.
  • Cummins has been heavily involved in adopting electrical technologies and electric battery systems to reach its goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. Cummins has 11 vehicles go through fuel-cell integration at its California site, with more vehicles expected to be converted over the course of next year.
  • As a Port of Los Angeles-led USD82.5 million Shore-to-Store project, Kenworth has delivered 10 T680 FCEV, which uses Toyota’s fuel cell electric system. Paccar, parent company of Kenworth received around USD33 million from SuperTruck3 program to develop and demonstrate 18 Class 8 FCEVs and BEVs.
  • Symbio, a joint venture between Faurecia and Michelin has entered into a partnership along with a few industry partners to develop and demonstrate a hydrogen-fueled, regional-haul Class 8 truck.

Hydrogen Partnerships to Accelerate Fuel Cell Adoption

Hydrogen coalition groups across the US are springing up fueled by billions of dollars in federal funding as they aim towards facilitating the production of the fuel for promoting the adoption of fuel cell trucks and cars. Currently, 54 hydrogen stations are operating in the US, all located in California. The coalition between states comprising of New York, Maine, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Jersey and 60 clean hydrogen ecosystem partners kicked off late summer to create a clean hydrogen hub under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The Midwestern Hydrogen Coalition, formed by seven states in the United States such as Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin, is aimed towards creating one of the the largest hydrogen infrastructure networks in the country by building ammonia production, pipelines, and nurse tanks. Interregional hydrogen partnerships will play a vital role in promoting the hydrogen industry and developing low carbon hydrogen supply systems and infrastructure. With the cost of hydrogen coming down, the prices of hydrogen vehicles will become less.

Recently, Nikola Corporation and BayoTech announced a strategic agreement to revolutionize hydrogen production, transportation, and storage sectors. Renowned for its expertise in zero-emissions transportation and energy supply solutions, Nikola Corporation will leverage its HYLA brand to accelerate the adoption of hydrogen fuel cell electric trucks whereas BayoTech, an innovator in hydrogen production and storage solutions will be providing a network of hydrogen production hubs to act as the primary source for Nikola’s low-carbon hydrogen supply. In 2022, BMW and Toyota teamed up to produce hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, which would be launched as early as 2025.

Enhanced Emphasis on Hydrogen Production to Fuel Growth Opportunities

Currently, clean hydrogen accounts for less than 1% of US hydrogen production and is more expensive than gray hydrogen (generated through fossil-fuel based sources). Clean hydrogen is developed by leveraging renewable energy sources like wind and solar energy. Ramping up clean hydrogen production has become a priority for the United States to accelerate transition towards clean energy. The Department of Energy seeks to produce 10 million metric tons of clean hydrogen by 2030, 20 million metric tons by 2040 and 50 million metric tons by 2050. Achieving this hydrogen production goal can help to reduce US GHG emissions by 10% by 2050.

The newly enacted Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) includes almost USD370 billion of incentives for targeted support for carbon dioxide capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS), heat pumps, green hydrogen. The Advanced Clean Energy Storage Project in Utah, expected to be the world’s largest industrial green hydrogen production and storage facility will be benefitted greatly by the IRA. Many hydrogen producers are taking note of the IRA as the incentives will almost take the green hydrogen to parity with current gray hydrogen prices, which would be a huge boost for the hard-to-abate industrial sectors.

Expansion of clean energy production and its reduced prices could fuel the adoption of hydrogen powered vehicles in the near future. Besides, increasing efforts by government and private players for expanding the hydrogen refueling stations could boost the hydrogen powered vehicle market.

According to TechSci Research report on “Global Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle Market By Vehicle Type (Passenger Cars and Commercial Vehicles), By Power Output (<150 kW, 150–250 kW, >250 kW), By Region, Competition, Forecast & Opportunities, 2028”, the global hydrogen fuel cell vehicle market is projected to grow at a significant rate. The market growth can be attributed to the rising environmental concerns and support government policies, schemes, and grants.  

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