Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Tina Casey headshot

New Hydrogen Electric Fuel Cell Truck Factory Rumbles Into Arizona

By Tina Casey

In another sign that the field of zero emission transportation is accelerating, the company Nikola has announced plans to build a new truck factory in Arizona. These aren't pick-ups or other light duty vehicles. The company's Nikola 1 model is built for long hauls and heavy loads, with an electric drive train powered by a hydrogen fuel cell system.

With plans for the new factory firming up, it looks like Nikola's plan for hydrogen long haul trucking is on the road to realization. It's also another sign that the trucking industry is slowly beginning to abandon the idea of "clean diesel" for a more sustainable future.

Nikola's Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Truck

The latest announcement is certainly good news for Arizona. The new factory, located near Phoenix in the town of Buckeye, is expected to create 2,000 jobs and stimulate capital investment to the tune of $1 billion within the next six years or so.

The news is also bad for Utah, which is losing Nikola's current headquarters. The company plans to transfer its R&D work to Arizona as well as building trucks there.

The company already has 8,000 trucks on pre-order, and so far it looks like everything is on track to have the factory up and running within two years.

Whew! Nikola Just Dodged A Major CSR Bullet

In terms of corporate social responsibility, it looks like the company is escaping from Utah just in the nick of time.

Nikola's business model embraces a strong environmental sustainability angle, and right now Utah is the epicenter of a battle over Trump Administration policies opening up more federal lands to extractive industries.

The focus of the battle is the Bears Ears national monument designated by former President Obama. The Trump policy has provoked a storm of outrage within the business community, most notably through the efforts of Patagonia, and it has been compared to a Wild West giveaway of public land.

Announcing a major new facility in Utah would have been a bad look for Nikola, or any other company building its brand around sustainability.

Sustainable Tehchnology, Smart City

Aside from the cutting edge factor in hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles, the new Nikola factory is noteworthy for its position in an overall master plan for the area with a population of 300,000. Here's developer El Dorado enthusing over the dream:
The community’s signature elements include: an education system which draws the finest educators and institutions and graduates the brightest students; world-class healthcare to promote wellness and address everyday health concerns; robust employment centers that keep individuals working close to home; multimodal transportation offering flexible, environmentally responsible alternatives; a rich array of recreational, arts and cultural amenities; expansive home and lifestyle choices and an unyielding commitment to sustainability and living in harmony with the natural environment.

That all remains to be seen, but the home construction industry has been trending towards more sustainable development, and the development is being billed as a "a sustainable master planned community" including a "prototype" smart city dubbed Trillium, consisting of 7,200 homes.

How Sustainable Are Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Trucks Anyways?

Just a few years ago, the idea of a new factory for building any hydrogen fueled vehicle would have been another environmental liability, because hydrogen is sourced primarily from natural gas.

However, new methods of producing renewable hydrogen by "splitting" water with an electric current are emerging, leaving the door open for wind, solar and other renewables. Sustainable hydrogen from biogas is also on the horizon.

Nikola has built that opportunity into its business model. The company launched in 2016 with ambitious plans for building a network of hydrogen fuel stations, leveraging solar energy to produce sustainable hydrogen.

The company initially planned on eight stations, and it doubled the number last December with a new plan for 16 in partnership with the company NelASA -- which happens to specialize in water-splitting.

Nikola has also partnered with Ryder for distribution and maintenance, lending a familiar name to an endeavor that is otherwise uncharted territory. Helping to firm up Nikola's position in the trucking industry, the company also lured former Ryder "tech guru" Scott Perry to its side last fall.

Photo (cropped): via Nikola.

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