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What comes first, the hydrogen truck or the fueling station?
That’s a conundrum the EV industry is currently grappling with. But one company’s answer is: both.
Nikola, a manufacturer of battery- and hydrogen-electric heavy-duty trucks, is taking the matter into its own hands by establishing a fueling network for fuel cell electric vehicles, or FCEVs. On Monday, the company announced the opening of its first-ever hydrogen refueling station in southern California.
The move is part of Nikola’s plan to open “up to 60 hydrogen refueling stations in the coming years,” with nine slated to open by the end of Q2.
“Easing the transition to a zero-emission trucking future and prioritizing access to a hydrogen solution network is our top objective and we’re just getting started,” Ole Hoefelmann, Nikola’s president of energy, said in a statement.
Hydrogen fuel cells are seen as a promising solution to help decarbonize the transportation sector, as Tech Brew recently reported. The benefits of FCEVs include quick refueling (crucial for commercial delivery trucks) and zero tailpipe emissions other than water vapor.
Still, FCEVs have lagged behind battery-electric vehicles—in part because there’s little infrastructure in place to support them. There are only 65 hydrogen fueling stations across North America, most in California, according to the Department of Energy.
“Building out that network needs to be a part of the plan if you’re going to deploy these trucks on long-haul routes. Right now, the infrastructure just does not exist,” Sam Abuelsamid, a principal research analyst at Guidehouse Insights, told us. “Nikola’s plan has always been to do both [vehicles and fueling] to kickstart the whole process.”
In December, Nikola announced a 10-year agreement with FirstElement Fuel, or FEF, to give users of Nikola’s hydrogen fuel cell electric truck access to a fueling station in Oakland, California.
That deal and the opening of the station in Ontario, California—which the company says will be able to fuel 40 vehicles per day and will be open to non-Nikola users—are part of a broader strategy by Nikola to establish its own fueling network as well as give its customers access to partner providers’ facilities.
California, Abuelsamid noted, so far is the primary site of fuel cell operations because the state is heavily incentivizing the decarbonization of fleets.
“This would be the way to prove out and validate that these trucks can run reliably: Do it on limited routes, show that they can operate reliably and efficiently,” Abuelsamid said. “And once you’ve demonstrated that, you can start expanding that fueling network and eventually get more trucks on the road operating to more places.”
Charlie Freese, executive director of General Motors’ hydrogen fuel-cell business, told us that he expects the infrastructure for FCEVs to develop similarly to the diesel fueling network in the US: “It’ll start in these centralized locations, mostly for these work vehicles, and then over time it’ll start to proliferate out into more your everyday refueling sites.”