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Tina Casey headshot

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Truck Pairs a Legacy Company with a Startup

By Tina Casey

The Intertubes are buzzing with news of the futuristic, zero-emissions hydrogen fuel cell truck launched by the startup Nikola Motor Co. last week. However, in corporate responsibility terms, a good chunk of the story belongs to Ryder, a U.S. truck company with deep roots and a broad reach.

Ryder is partnering with Nikola for nationwide distribution and maintenance of the new Nikola One truck. The new relationship provides a good demonstration of how older, legacy companies can turbo-boost their way into the low-carbon business model of the future by seeking out opportunities to adopt new technologies.

Ryder meets Nikola

Ryder got its start back in 1933 as a concrete hauling firm with one truck, a Ford Model A. The company's interest in new technology dates back to at least 1952, when it became one of the first transportation companies to deploy a computer to keep track of accounts.

The company issued its first sustainability report in 2009, and in 2011 it signed on to the Obama administration's Clean Fleets pollution initiative.

Ryders's carbon-reducing efforts include an emphasis on fuel efficiency and compressed natural gas. Both of those angles can result in strong progress within a relatively short period of time in terms of reducing tailpipe emissions. However, both of them continue dependency on fossil fuels. That leaves Ryder exposed to supply chain issues, like those recently underscored by the Dakota Access pipeline protests and the earthquake swarms in Oklahoma.

In that context, the Nikola partnership represents a real game-changer for Ryder.

Nikola One is an all-electric drive vehicle powered by a lithium-ion battery pack via a fuel cell, for a range of up to 1,200 miles per fill-up. In addition to ditching diesel fuel, the electric drive provides an almost noiseless ride and  delivers far more torque, all with a weight savings of 2,000 pounds on the chassis.

Aside from contributing to fuel efficiency, the vehicle's regenerative braking system also enables faster stopping. That's an important safety improvement over conventional brakes.

Another important safety feature is the truck's lower center of gravity, a direct result of removing the diesel engine, transmission and emissions equipment and replacing them with batteries, electric motors and a fuel cell.

Ryder's new solar connection

Ryder will also get to share the credit for accelerating the adoption of renewable hydrogen. The Nikola business plan includes splitting hydrogen from water, using an electrical current powered by solar energy:
"Nikola is in the process of developing multiple 100-megawatt solar farms to create hydrogen from electrolysis," the company says. "Nikola will convert solar energy to hydrogen on-site using only energy and water, making it the only fuel that is zero emission from production to consumption."

Solar powered water-splitting relieves Nikola and its partners from reliance on fossil natural gas, which is still the primary source for hydrogen.

Though Nikola is clear on its intent to build solar farms for renewable hydrogen, the future could also bring other forms of renewable energy for water-splitting into play, such as wind power or tidal power. Renewable hydrogen can also be sourced from biomass.

Where to find hydrogen fuel

The Nikola launch included another critical element that has nationwide implications for zero-emissions transportation.

Auto manufacturers face a chicken-and-egg dilemma regarding hydrogen fuel cell EVs. Few people want to buy them, partly because there are very few places to fuel them up. Meanwhile, hydrogen fuel stations are not being built because practically nobody is driving a fuel cell vehicle.

As part of its launch, Nikola released plans to build 364 hydrogen fuel stations around the U.S. and Canada in an initial round of construction, with "many more to come," the company said. The Nikola One truck lease package includes free hydrogen for the first million miles of operation. All 364 stations would also be available to the general public.

That's a colossal leap forward for hydrogen fuel stations in the U.S. The Energy Department has been working in California and three Northeastern states to kickstart the hydrogen fuel infrastructure through the public-private H2USA partnership. So far only a handful of fueling stations are open to the public, and only a few dozen are in the planning stages.

Nikola anticipates that it will begin building fuel stations in 2018. If and when these 364-and-counting fuel stations come about, Ryder can take partial credit for unblocking the hydrogen bottleneck and helping the U.S. to accelerate its transition out of fossil fuels.

"Thousands" of new green jobs

Some industry observers are skeptical that Nikola can pull off this ambitious plan, but the Ryder partnership gives the startup solid cred.

The bottom line is that fleet owners are already lined up to place their orders for Nikola One. Nikola says it has received reservations for almost $3 billion in future orders. The company expects trucks to start rolling off the assembly line in 2020.

The plan is for the experienced truck builder Fitzgerald Glider Kits to assemble the first 5,000 vehicles according to Nikola's specs, with all-Nikola parts.

As for where that assembly line might be, Nikola is not saying yet, but the company has ambitious plans for that as well:

"Nikola will build a world-class advanced manufacturing facility which will create thousands of new jobs,” said Nikola Founder and CEO Trevor Milton. "Nikola is currently in discussions with several states to decide who to partner with in its effort to reduce America’s dependence on fossil fuels, advance green energy and revolutionize the trucking industry."

Hmmm ... if you're guessing Indiana, you might be on to something. Nikola expects to announce the lucky state within the next six months, so stay tuned.

Image: via Nikola Motor Company.



Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey