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Toyota's Renewable Hydrogen Puzzle Comes Through in California

Tina Casey headshotWords by Tina Casey
Leadership & Transparency
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The Toyota Motor Company has staked its reputation on fuel cell vehicles, and despite all the nay-saying it looks like the automaker is on track to crack the market open with the help of renewable hydrogen. In the latest development, last week Toyota announced a new partnership with the Kenworth Truck Company to produce H2-powered trucks for the California market, where a renewable hydrogen fuel mandate is in force.

Renewable hydrogen for fuel cell trucks

One of the problems that skeptics have with fuel cell vehicles is the lifecycle factor. Hydrogen is a zero-emission fuel at the tailpipe, but the main source of hydrogen today is fossil natural gas. That means it is loaded with baggage, including the local air and water impacts of natural gas operations as well as greenhouse gas emissions all along the supply chain.

Toyota is already working on sustainable solutions that involve using renewable energy to "split" hydrogen from water. The new Kenworth partnership could draw on another pathway that substitutes renewable biogas for natural gas.

Last April, Toyota announced provisional funding for a biogas-to-hydrogen partnership with Shell Oil Products (operating through Equilon Enterprises). The funding was contingent on approval from the California Energy Commission. It would provide for Shell to build a hydrogen fueling station at the Port of Long Beach, California. The hydrogen would come from Toyota's Tri-Gen facility, which uses 100 percent renewable biogas.

The California angle is important because the state is aggressively promoting fuel cell vehicles, and its long-range planning includes a renewable hydrogen mandate.

Toyota is also working on renewable H2 production in a partnership with 7-Eleven in Japan. If the project works out, it could provide a pathway for 7-Eleven to carry out its ambitious expansion plans in the U.S., without a consequent increase in its carbon footprint.

From one truck to ten trucks . . . to 800

The Kenworth partnership builds on a fuel cell truck pilot project that Toyota launched in April 2017.

The partnership is expected to result in the delivery of 10 Kenworth T680s powered by Toyota fuel cell electric powertrains. The T680 is known for superior high-efficiency aerodynamics, which may account for Toyota's interest in Kenworth.

The trucks will be assigned to a territory that reaches from ports in the Los Angeles basin to San Bernardino and other inland areas. The two companies anticipate that the fuel cell powertrain will provide a range of more than 300 miles under typical driving conditions.

That's a big step up from one truck. It also represents a recognition that the competition is heating up in the fuel cell truck sector, including the renewable hydrogen angle.

Here in the U.S., the startup Nikola is already planning a national network of fueling stations for its new fuel cell truck. Many of those stations will produce renewable hydrogen on site through solar-powered electrolysis.

The Nikola truck is not yet in production, but last May the company reached a pre-order agreement with AB InBev that could add upwards of 800 fuel cell trucks to its fleet, so stay tuned for more on that.

More bad news for natural gas

On a somewhat sour note, the supply of renewable hydrogen will probably not meet demand in the foreseeable future, especially if companies like Toyota and Nikola push more fuel cell vehicles onto the road.

One red flag is a mammoth new $150 million liquid H2 production facility planned by France-based Air Liquide, to be built in an as-yet undisclosed location in the western U.S. The facility is billed as the first of its kind aimed at fulfilling demand in the energy sector.

The idea seems to be to take advantage of the abundant fossil resources in the area.

The good news is that the facility is being built with a focus on the California market, so renewable resources may also be on the table.

In addition, Air Liquide has already reached a supply agreement with the U.S. company FirstElement Fuel. First Element currently produces about one-third renewable hydrogen and is eyeballing a fossil-free future through its "True Zero" brand of H2.

Air Liquide itself also seems to have determined that the future of H2 is a low-carbon one. The company's "Blue Hydrogen" commitment involves a pledge of at least 50 percent carbon-free hydrogen by 2020 for energy applications.

In related news, last year Amazon made a $600 million bet on fuel cell forklifts with the U.S. company Plug Power, which has also articulated a clean fuel vision based on renewable H2.

Image credit: Hydrogen fuel cell truck via Toyota.

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

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. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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