Brunell: Hydrogen fuel cell use in vehicles gaining momentum

The bottom line is now that hydrogen technology is growing in acceptance, it is starting to scale up, reduce production costs, and accelerate infrastructure and research.

By Don C. Brunell

Syndicated columnist

Investors are betting that in the coming decade hydrogen will become a prominent fuel which can eliminate CO2 discharges from the vehicles it energizes.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the transportation sector has dominated the growth in U.S. carbon dioxide emissions since 1990, accounting for 69 percent of the total increase.

It is important that hydrogen technology advances rapidly because cars, trucks and buses are a growing contributor to greenhouse gas buildups in our atmosphere. For example, Seattle-based Amazon alone doubled its truck fleet to 20,000 in just a year, said. Its fleet runs on diesel.

In 2017, Amazon reached agreement with Plug Power to utilize its fuel cells and hydrogen technology in its fulfillment centers. Revenues associated with the commercial agreements were estimated to be around $70 million.

Faced with increasing numbers of vehicles on the road, many governments worldwide have pegged hydrogen as another way to eliminate human generated carbon dioxide. Just as enticing, the by-product of hydrogen fuel cells is water.

Developing hydrogen into a commercially viable fuel takes money — lots of it.

The Hydrogen Council, whose 60-members represent total revenues of nearly $2.9 trillion and close to 4.2 million jobs, recently joined forces with European Investment Bank, to finance hydrogen projects. The Council believes they will require $20-to-25 billion in annual investments during the next decade.

The Council’s goal is not to diminish the importance of investments in battery operated vehicles technology or lower carbon fuels, but believes large scale capital investments also need to go into developing others way to power vehicles.

For example, China has made battery operated vehicle development and production a primary objective of its ambitious “Made in China 2025” initiative. With the help of the government, it already makes nearly half of the world’s electric vehicles today and aims to dominate that sector over the next five years.

The key drawbacks of battery operated vehicles are driving range, lengthy charging time and recycling of spent batteries many of which end up in landfills. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, on the other hand, can cover similar distances, but drivers can gas up with hydrogen just like their current cars, buses and trucks.

Many automakers are investing heavily in hydrogen as well. Hyundai, the South Korean auto giant, already is devoting $6.3 billion to fuel cell technology and plans to ramp up production from 3,000 units per year to 40,000 by 2022.

Kirkland, Washington-based truck manufacturer, Kenworth is developing 10 zero-emissions Kenworth T680s powered by Toyota hydrogen fuel cell electric powertrains. Last April, Toyota and Kenworth unveiled the jointly developed fuel cell electric heavy-duty truck, the result of a collaboration with the California Air Resources Board and the Port of Los Angeles. The trucks will be used at the Ports of Los Angeles, throughout the Southern California and Central Coast areas, and in Merced County.

“One of the benefits of (hydrogen fuel cell vehicles) is that hydrogen uses a fueling infrastructure that’s similar to conventional trucks. This means that (hydrogen fuel cell vehicles) could be refuelled at existing truck stops across the country and the fuelling experience would be similar. A truck can be filled with hydrogen in less than 15 minutes,” Patrick Molloy at Rocky Mountain Institute in Denver wrote.

Nikola Motors, a U.S. maker of hydrogen trucks, claims its vehicles can get 12 to 15 mpg, well above the average 6.4 mpg for a diesel truck. Nikola Motors, based in Phoenix, just announced, it also launched a road map for 700 fuelling stations across our country.

The bottom line is now that hydrogen technology is growing in acceptance, it is starting to scale up, reduce production costs, and accelerate infrastructure and research.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at