At S&P Global by CERAWeek, a festival of everything hydrogen, trucking and the H element was a frequent topic of both general and highly focused presentations on companies’ specific hydrogen-based solutions.

But at a panel covering three major parts of the hydrogen supply chain and featuring providers of the fuel (Chevron), builders of applications (Toyota) and a manufacturer of fuel cells that are key to making hydrogen a reality in trucking (Ballard), presenters said collaboration along the supply chain is essential to make hydrogen a commercially viable option for heavy-duty trucks. 

The panel, chaired by Andrej Divis, head of the medium- and heavy duty-vehicle segment at S&P Mobility (NYSE: SPGI) repeatedly emphasized that there are so many moving parts in a working supply chain for hydrogen-based trucking that working together is the only way to tackle the logistics hurdles.

James Kast, hydrogen infrastructure manager at Toyota (NYSE: TM), said joint investment is crucial. “We are in this new realm and being very transparent about what and when it will be  hard will help us get over these humps,” he said. 

Michael Hoban, general manager for hydrogen at Chevron (NYSE: CVX), was upfront about the challenges. “The scale of hydrogen for heavy-duty vehicles is not fully appreciated,” he said, citing, for example, “football stadium-sized needs for storage” at individual sites. 

But the session was not just a list of challenges. Battery electric vehicle technology for heavy-duty trucks has increasingly been viewed as not feasible due to weight consideration, but the panelists at times discussed it as if it remained a legitimate alternative. However, panelists highlighted the strengths of hydrogen as a potential fuel – if challenges to building delivery infrastructure can be overcome.

Earlier in CERAWeek, a panel on hydrogen trucks featured manufacturer Hyliion’s CEO, Thomas Healy, who noted the significant drawbacks to battery technology in trucks: “It is extremely expensive and the range is limited.”

After declaring hydrogen the “fuel of the future” in trucking, Healy made a comment that Divis echoed at the later panel: “The question is, when are we going to have the infrastructure to really deploy hydrogen.”

While the challenges of building hydrogen infrastructure may seem immense, they have the benefit of being front-loaded. Hoban said the initial costs to develop a hydrogen infrastructure for trucking are enormous but have enduring economies of scale.

“Everything is pushed upfront,” Hoban said of the costs. A refueling system needs to be put into place, and vehicles need to be retrofitted with hydrogen-based fuel cells, he said. But once those things and other necessary steps happen, “you don’t need a lot of additional construction.”

To get it done, Hoban said, joint effort is vital. That upfront investment “requires lots of collaboration and policies to allow the infrastructure,” Hoban said. “A lot of work needs to be done.”

Randy MacEwen, president and CEO of fuel cell maker Ballard Power Systems (NASDAQ; BLDP), said his company had worked with battery electric applications. A problem it encountered is that depending on the vehicle, there are “various states of discharge,” where applications can have wildly different time parameters of how long a full battery charge can last. The life of a tankful of hydrogen powering a full cell is more predictable, he said.

The longer-term deterioration of batteries is also more of an issue than that of a fuel cell, Kast said. “The durability of a fuel cell stack is a big one,” he said.

MacEwen said his company has had extensive experience with hydrogen fuel cells in buses, which would be considered a heavy-duty application. But the structure of a bus, with rooftop space for fuel cells and hydrogen storage, allows easier adaptation than a truck. “When you get into a commercial vehicle, space becomes a challenge,” he said. Additional work is needed on storing hydrogen on board trucks to supply a fuel cell, MacEwen said. 

Ultimately, the adoption of hydrogen technology into trucks – and whether it will actually happen – will need to look at “the specific use case,” MacEwen said, to determine the total cost of ownership. That means deciding whether the technology reaches a company’s zero-carbon objectives within “an appropriate cost structure.”

At the manufacturers’ panel earlier in the week, Parker Meeks, president and interim CEO of Hyzon Motors, which mostly focuses on hydrogen fuel cells but also has built prototype hydrogen trucks, said the cost of operating a hydrogen truck is about half that of operating diesel. But at an entry point of close to $600,000 for a new vehicle, the question in the industry has always been whether the “appropriate cost structure” MacEwen referred to can be reached with that sort of upfront cost, regardless of the reduced bill for operations. 

Still, MacEwen does not doubt that demand is there. He described end-user demand as “very strong with a high level of interest.” The pace of product introductions by OEMs has been quicker  than expected, MacEwen said, to which Kast added that “we’re very close to getting the needed market triggers.”

“It is the large logistics players and companies that are touching consumers,” MacEwen said of the areas where Ballard is seeing the most interest in hydrogen. Those companies are “pressured” to meet environmental, social and governance principles and “they have very ambitious plans to decarbonize.”

“This is not science fiction,” Hoban said. “These are real solutions that can be deployed and scaled to where we know we can go.”

More articles by John Kingston

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