Hydrogen lorries: Will fleets use them?

Is the future really electric or are there some creditable alternatives being developed? For fleet managers, electric vehicles are often presented as the only option for the future of fleets. However, this is unlikely to be the case. There are many alternative fuels in development as we prepare for the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles in 2030. Previously, we have discussed HVO as a potential option but fleet managers should also evaluate if hydrogen-powered vehicles could form a part of their future fleet profile. Hydrogen-powered vehicles are currently seeing an increase in interest as the technology has seen huge steps forward in recent years. So, are hydrogen-powered HGVs viable for fleets?

How do hydrogen HGVs work?

There are a couple of ways that HGV engines can be structured to use hydrogen as a fuel. For example, hydrogen combustion engines operate similarly to regular internal combustion engines (ICEs). There are also hydrogen fuel cell engines, which are the most prominent option in development.

Hydrogen fuel cells use electrochemical reactions to create usable power for a variety of applications and sectors. When applied to engines, a fuel cell is quite like a battery, except that it creates its own electricity from fuel instead of needing to be charged.

Hydrogen fuel cells use both hydrogen and oxygen to power the motor of the vehicle. The process works as follows:

Step one

A fuel cell is made up of a cathode, an anode, and an electrolyte membrane.

Hydrogen fuel cell step two

Oxygen travels to the cathode of the fuel cell. Meanwhile, the hydrogen atoms travel to the anode, where they are split into protons and electrons.

Hydrogen fuel cell step three

The hydrogen electrodes go through a circuit, generating heat and electricity.

Hydrogen fuel cell step four

The hydrogen protons, now positively charged, travel through the electrolyte membrane.

Hydrogen fuel cells step five

When the electrons have travelled through the circuit and the protons have travelled through the membrane, they meet at the cathode and react with the oxygen to create water/H2O.

How do hydrogen fuel cells work?

The only by-products of hydrogen fuel cells are heat and water, with no carbon emissions. This makes them an exciting option to add to the UK’s transportation network ahead of 2030. So, what do we need to consider when looking at the possibility of adding hydrogen lorries to our fleets?

Won’t fleets be using electric vehicles?

Hydrogen-powered HGVs are currently in development worldwide as the technology plays catch up to electric vehicles. For fleet operators, the option of incorporating hydrogen HGVs will potentially circumvent some of the worries that have been raised by the switch to EVs.

Even with the vast development of the UK’s electric vehicle network, there are still major doubts about if EV technology will be able to support heavier fleet and transportation activity. This is mainly due to the shortened ranges that EVs have before needing to refuel when compared to diesel vehicles. The length of time needed to recharge EVs is also a concern as it will potentially cause delays for drivers.

What could hydrogen fuel mean for HGV fleets in the future?

It was recently announced that Tevva, an Essex-based company, has added a hydrogen fuel cell to their electric HGV design, to support the battery and ensure there is a backup in case the vehicle runs out of charge on the road, increasing its range to 310 miles. This is an important milestone as it marks the first hydrogen-powered vehicle to be designed and manufactured in the UK, showing strides forwards in the technology and its commercial ability.

Volvo Trucks is also in the process of testing a zero-emissions HGV powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, which is reporting a range of up to 1,000km (621 miles) and a refuelling time of 15 minutes. At the rate of their current testing, this HGV would be on sale in the latter half of the decade.

In terms of the wider future of hydrogen-powered HGVs, Element Energy Ltd carried out a study to “provide costs, efficiencies and roll-out trajectories for zero-emission HGVs, buses and coaches” back in 2020. Their prediction regarding hydrogen-powered LGVs (referred to in the study as FCEV or Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles) was that, by 2050, hydrogen-powered vehicles would not be as cost-effective as electric vehicles due to the infrastructural support behind EVs. However, they have posited that “FCEV refuelling is easier to manage than BEV (Battery Electric Vehicles) recharging, and some operators may be willing to pay a cost premium for the vehicles to save driver time and operational complexity.”

When asked about the future of hydrogen-powered fleets, Roger Elm, President of Volvo Trucks, said “My clear message to all transport companies is to start the journey today with battery-electric, biogas, and other options available. The fuel cell trucks will be an important complement for longer and heavier transports in a few years from now.

Mixed fleets do look to be the way forward as we leave fossil fuels behind. Electric cars will no doubt make up the majority of fleet vehicles in the future as they’re a perfect option for company cars. Meanwhile, larger transport vehicles, such as HGVs, and more time-poor fleets will likely turn to the advantages of hydrogen-powered lorries.

In the meantime, HVO is also a great option for those wanting to bridge the gap and cut down on CO2 usage as we move over to carbon neutral options, as many diesel vehicles do not need any alterations to use it as fuel.

Image of lorry shape in trees from above

Advantages of hydrogen-powered lorries

With hydrogen lorries looking on their way to becoming a viable option for fleets by the end of the decade, it’s important for fleet managers to spend the run-up researching the possibilities of the technology to decide if it’s right for them. There are 5 main benefits to consider when thinking about the future of hydrogen-powered HGVs:

1. The reduction in carbon emissions. The only by-products would be water and heat.

2. Fuel cells are much quieter than combustion engines as there are no moving parts, leading to much quieter roads and working environments for your drivers.

3. Hydrogen can be refuelled quickly. As opposed to electric battery-powered vehicles, which need to be charged for long periods of time, hydrogen fuel cells just need to be refilled.

4. Hydrogen fuel cells convert energy more efficiently than traditional combustion engines, so you get more power and distance for the same amount of fuel.

5. Hydrogen fuel cells give HGVs a greater range than electric vehicles.

Disadvantages of hydrogen-powered lorries

However, there are also drawbacks to using hydrogen for fleets. Most of these disadvantages are due to hydrogen vehicles being in the relatively early stages of their development. These include:

1. A current lack of investment in the infrastructure needed for hydrogen vehicles to be viable for fleet usage. Political support would be needed to make sure the UK is able to offer adequate refuelling points, grants, or vehicle options for hydrogen HGVs.

2. As there is currently very little infrastructure for hydrogen vehicles, this will limit the number of places that hydrogen-powered vehicles can be repaired.

3. To be used as fuel, hydrogen needs to be extracted from water using electrolysis, which can be expensive due to the materials needed for this process. The expense needed to create hydrogen fuel will bump up the cost for consumers.

It is worth noting that, if hydrogen-powered fleets see the same level of rollout as electric vehicles, more issues with commercial use may come to light.

When looking at the future of fleets, it can be overwhelming to consider which option may be right for you. As we get closer to the government’s deadline, it is looking more likely that large fleets will use a mix of fuel sources past 2030. If you would like a consultation regarding your fleet operations, including a detailed invoice analysis to break down your current fuel usage, get in touch with our team today.


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