Climate activists are rightfully disappointed in U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, who is supporting fossil energy instead of pushing for aggressive decarbonization. Nevertheless, it appears that Senator Manchin’s efforts will end in disappointment for fossil energy stakeholders. The electrification movement is accelerating, partly thanks to an explosion of interest in fuel cells. Fossil energy stakeholders are trying to carve out a foothold for natural gas in the fuel cell field, but now they are bumping up against new green hydrogen technology that could make fossil energy irrelevant.
With the clock ticking on action to avert catastrophic climate change, the Energy Department’s new SuperTruck 3 initiative highlights how new fuel cell technology is accelerating the pace of decarbonization.
The Energy Department introduced the first iteration of SuperTruck in 2009, with the goal of increasing conventional fuel efficiency for freight hauling. Fuel cell technology was improving back then, but when the Energy Department introduced a second phase of SuperTruck in 2016 (as shown above), it still focused on improving petroleum-powered trucks.
Now here comes SuperTruck 3, which pushes diesel fuel aside in favor of new battery and fuel cell technologies, including green hydrogen.
Fuel cell vehicles are electric, like their battery powered cousins. However, instead of charging up and storing electricity, fuel cells produce electricity on-the-go by combining it with ambient oxygen, in the presence of a catalyst. The only emission from the pollution-free reaction is water.
The Energy Department announced its intentions for SuperTruck 3 last spring, as part of a broader initiative of almost $200 million aimed at dramatically reducing emissions from cars as well as trucks.
The SuperTruck 3 initiative took the biggest slice of the pie with $127 million going to five companies that will tackle hydrogen fuel cells as well as battery-powered electric trucks.
The Energy Department has supported electric vehicle startup companies throughout the years, most notably Tesla. However, this round of funding is specifically focused on accelerating the transition to electrification by legacy car and truck makers.
The five awardees are all well-known firms with generations of experience in conventional trucks in hand.
One is the Washington State company PACCAR, which traces its roots in the rail industry to 1905. PACCAR expanded its footprint into heavy duty trucks in 1945. The company will apply its share of the Energy Department funding to develop both battery and fuel cell electric trucks.
The other four awardees are more familiar to the general public. Volvo Group North America is tasked with bringing a 400-mile electric tractor-trailer and a megawatt-level charging station into operation. Daimler Trucks North America has a similar assignment aimed at creating 600-mile fuel cell trucks that turn in a performance equivalent to diesel fuel.
Detroit is also represented. Ford Motor Company will focus on gasoline-equivalent hydrogen fuel cell electric Class-6 “Super Duty” trucks, a category that includes school buses as well as larger beverage trucks and other medium-duty commercial vehicles.
General Motors will be working along similar lines, but in a more expansive mode. Along with Class 6 fuel cell trucks it will also tackle Classes 4 and 5, which cover everything from passenger vans to utility vehicles.
The sticky wicket in all this is the hydrogen to power the fuel cells. Almost all of the global supply of hydrogen comes from natural gas. Most of the remainder comes from coal, and the result is a messy mix of climate impacts all through the supply chain.
If SuperTruck 3 had launched back in 2009, only these fossil sources would have been available for hydrogen to run the fuel cells. That would have clouded any progress in reducing emissions at the tailpipe. Fortunately, fossil sources are longer the only option.
General Motors, for example, is not only going to develop zero emission fuel cell vehicles. The company’s award of just over $26 million will also go to develop electrolysis systems that deploy an electrical current to push so-named green hydrogen out of water.
GM has already emerged as a leader in the areas of fuel cell vehicles and clean power for EV charging as well as clean power for general usage. The electrolysis assignment could help kickstart GM into a leadership role in the green hydrogen field as well, but they will have plenty of competition.
The green hydrogen field began gathering steam about two years ago, alongside a drop in the cost of wind and solar power. After all, it would make little or no sense to run hydrogen electrolysis systems with fossil energy.
The latest developments indicate a rapid scaling-up of the green hydrogen field.
Part of that acceleration is due to the interest of the mining sector in generating on-site power, which is a mixed bag in terms of environmental impacts. Nevertheless, green hydrogen activity in the mining sector can help build economies of scale and incentivize supply chains that help reduce costs for other applications as well.
The global mining firm Fortescue Metals Group has staked out a pole position in the green hydrogen field, and earlier this week the company announced a supply chain deal that will make its Fortescue Futures branch the largest supplier of green hydrogen to the U.K.
The Fortescue announcement dovetails with news about the global steel industry that emerged this week. As reported by Reuters, the U.S. and the European Union reached a tariff deal that would incentivize low-carbon steel. Both countries are positioned to take advantage of the deal due to their transition to electric blast furnaces, a trend in which green hydrogen and other clean power resources are playing a role.
The U.S. - E.U. deal leaves U.K. steel makers out in the cold, but it should motivate them to take advantage of Fortescue’s plans for the U.K. market. Under the terms of the the deal, Fortescue partners J C Bamford Excavators and Ryze Hydrogen are tasked with growing the customer base for green hydrogen. Eventual expansion to the E.U. is also part of the plan.
On top of all this, Reuters has reported that Fortescue is formulating an $8.4 billion, industrial scale green hydrogen plan in Argentina, located in the province of Río Negro.
None of this means that fossil sourced hydrogen will evaporate from the global market any time soon. However, the writing is on the wall, and several U.S. states have begun seizing the opportunity to grow new jobs by establishing themselves as green hydrogen hubs in their region.
The new green hydrogen trend appears to recognize no political boundaries. The red state of Utah, for example, is already promoting the privately owned salt caverns within its borders as the linchpin of a regional renewable hydrogen hub.
Another interesting development occurred last month, when the firm Hy Stor Energy of Mississippi announced its intention to build the nation’s largest green hydrogen hub in its home state. Of particular interest is the role of legacy know-how in the venture. As reported by E&E News, Hy Stor’s CEO Laura Luce has extensive experience in the field of natural gas storage.
West Virginia could be next on the list. The state could gain a leading edge due to its proximity to major markets in the northeast and other regions. Alongside an abundance of water, West Virginia is also home to a vast store of abandoned coal fields that could be repurposed for wind and solar development, and potentially as hydrogen storage.
That is all well and good, except that Senator Manchin appears to be narrowly focused on carrying water for natural gas stakeholders in his state. It’s unfortunate that West Virginia is missing a golden opportunity for economic development and new green jobs, but at least workers elsewhere in the U.S. will benefit from the new green hydrogen trend.
Image credit via Department of Energy
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.