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Nikola, the leading US designer and – soon, by 2020 – manufacturer of very large hydrogen ‘prime mover’  trucks has announced the imminent release of battery electric vehicle trucks in 2019.

In a previous article, the relationship between Anheuser-Busch (owner of multiple global beer brands, including Carlton United in Australia) and Nikola was examined.

AB committed to 800 trucks over a few years, supported by NEL Norway’s on-site hydrogen electrolysers, which can be powered by the grid. If the local grid power is renewables, then the hydrogen is emissions-free.

If not, then the Hydrogen shares the emissions intensity of the local generation/transmission system.

In some states in the US, power is predominantly from hydro and a mix of wind/solar; in other states, the power is still coal/gas predominant.

The advantages of this hydrogen logistics strategy were presented as quick refuelling from stored hydrogen, produced in advance of the truck’s arrival. The cost of the solution was on parity with diesel which made the strategy affordable.

However, as AB’s intention is to produce beer with ‘zero embedded emissions’, this strategy was somewhat leaky in the coal/gas states – leakiness never being a popular thing for beer.

Nikola has now announced that three BEV Category 8 trucks will be presented within months, replicating the Tesla-Semi BEV-architecture.

These trucks will have a range of battery sizes to suit various duty cycles, viz. 500kWh, 750 kWh and 1,000 kWh. These battery sizes represent ranges of 320 km to 640 km.

Nikola advises that these ranges should be discounted by about 25% in extreme conditions, for example extreme cold – the US can drop to -40C in winter.

For a truck carting beer from a brewery in one state to a distribution centre in another state, i.e. long-haul, either the longer-range battery or Hydrogen might be appropriate.

For trucks carting beer from a brewery to distribution centres within a couple of hundred kms, the smallest battery could prove most attractive of the BEV options, due to the much-reduced cost of the truck resulting from a battery half the size.

As it takes time to load/unload a large truck, it would be prudent to use that time to re-charge.

This could be achieved by installing high-speed recharging infrastructure at both the origin (brewery) and the destination (distribution centre), with a power-rating capable of completely re-charging the truck from an assumed near-empty state within the time taken for the load/unload process.

Currently charging infrastructure can re-charge a battery at up to 350kWh in an hour.

However, using parallel charging could halve that time.

Re-fueling with Hydrogen at a destination is not likely to be cost-effective due to the cost of a Hydrogen pump and electrolyser which is more than $2m, compared with BEV re-chargers which are 90% cheaper.

Thus, Hydrogen seems only to be an option for long-haul on-route re-fuelling where adequate renewable energy is available. BEVs would have more difficulty with the long-haul duty cycle if sufficient on-route clean power was more expensive.

Nikola has denied that they are abandoning their promised Hydrogen truck, pointing out that in certain situations, the Hydrogen solution may be better suited to the duty cycle of the client’s truck.

Looking at the AB requirement, i.e. zero emissions beer, hydrogen is a possibility.

Where suitable strength zero-emissions power is available to run NEL’s on-site electrolyers at a re-charge station, Hydrogen is an option.

If sufficient zero emissions grid power is not available, then a demand-sized local renewable energy generation plant would have to be installed, e.g. wind or solar, etc.

On the other hand, BEVs may require more zero emissions grid power or a bigger local renewable energy plant than Hydrogen would need – due to the immediacy of demand/supply.

Alternatively, if that higher power is not available or not cost-effective, charging infrastructure would need to augment that power with battery which might push prices higher than a Hydrogen solution.

As usual, there is no silver bullet and there may be a place for both options under different circumstances. But it is interesting to see the main proponent of Hydrogen, Nikola, hedge its bets with some BEV options.

Nikola’s tweet is interesting in acknowledging the probable dominance of BEV in short-haul: “Fuel Cell can’t be beat long haul and BEV is good option for short haul. World needs both. ICE is enemy, not hydrogen or BEV.”

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