The race to decarbonize trucking is heating up, with several lower-carbon-footprint fuel choices now available in today’s vehicles. Two of the most intriguing options are battery-electric powertrains and hydrogen fuel cells, both promising zero tailpipe emissions.
If you’re used to working with diesel, adopting new trucks into your fleet can be an expensive and time-consuming endeavor, so how do you know which fuel choice will deliver the best ROI for your applications?
“We are not yet in a VHS vs. Betamax scenario, and fleets are exploring everything available to them to see what best suits the needs of their business. Some are quite hungry for what’s next and there are ancillary players that are poised to make additional inroads.”
— Colby White, Electrification Product Manager at Great Dane
While considering your options, it is important to understand the pros and cons of each powertrain and how these factors could affect your daily operations.
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Fleets around the globe have proven that adopting trucks running on battery-electric powertrains can make a great success story. With the proper charging infrastructure in place, battery-electric powertrains offer the promise of significant fuel cost savings. In addition, with fewer moving parts in these vehicles, many manufacturers believe fleets adopting electric trucks will have much lower maintenance costs over the life of the vehicle.
Electrifying the trailer can also provide significant benefits. For instance, regenerative braking can use a generator to produce electric power regeneration, which lowers the emissions and fuel consumption of the overall vehicle—a feature particularly useful for TRUs.
Trailer manufacturers like Great Dane are also studying ways to allow for a bi-directional power transfer from the electrified trailer to the truck, potentially extending the range of the tractor. Or the tractor could provide power to the trailer to power a trailer’s refrigeration system.
Battery-electric truck range isn’t ideal for many applications, especially long-haul trucking. The total range may also take a significant dip depending on the weight of the cargo being hauled. Battery-electric trucks are also considerably heavier than their diesel counterparts, which, in some cases, can eat into the payload.
Charging batteries and the supporting infrastructure can cause challenges for some fleets. The extended charging duration of an electric truck battery compared to the time it takes to refuel a diesel tank can limit fleets to specific charging windows to optimize fuel cost savings.
While the nation’s charging station network is growing, they are still far less common than diesel filling stations. In many cases, fleets opt to install their own chargers, but the process can sometimes take months or even years.
One of the biggest advantages to using hydrogen-powered trucks over battery-electric is range, which can be hundreds of miles farther on a full tank. This makes hydrogen a good option for heavy-duty, long-haul applications.
A hydrogen fuel cell powertrain weighs less than diesel and much less than a battery-electric powertrain, giving trucks running on hydrogen an even longer range and the potential to carry more cargo. Hydrogen also takes about the same time to refuel as diesel, making the process considerably faster than charging battery-electric trucks.
One of the biggest challenges associated with hydrogen fuel cells is the need for more infrastructure. Additionally, in most cases, the hydrogen fuel itself is more expensive than electricity, as the production and transportation of hydrogen can be rather costly.
Hydrogen fuel cell development for commercial trucks is still in its infancy, so there are few options available, and maintenance challenges are yet to be fully understood.
Hydrogen is generally considered a better decarbonized fuel choice for long-haul applications, and battery-electric is more suitable for middle-mile applications. However, dozens of factors should influence a fleet’s powertrain choice, including application, geography, range, availability of infrastructure, and fuel costs.
Is a Hydrogen TRU Viable?
One great reason to consider electrifying your trailer is to power the Trailer Refrigeration Unit (TRU), which can help fleets meet zero emissions standards and extend the service life of the individual TRU components. Hydrogen fuel cell-powered TRUs are now being studied in Europe for the same purpose; however, the technology is young, and prototypes have just begun hitting the streets in the past few years.