First Element Adds Trucks to Hydrogen Refueling Network

First Element Fuel opens first heavy-truck refueling station in the U.S. in Oakland, CA, the first of many more to support hydrogen-powered big rigs.

David Kiley, Senior Editor

April 30, 2024

5 Min Read
TrueZero's FCEV truck refueling business should grow exponentially.

When First Element Fuel began building out TrueZero hydrogen fueling stations in 2013, funded by the state of California, as well as Toyota and Honda, the future business was centered on fuel-cell passenger cars. More than a decade later, big trucks look like they will carry the operation forward.

First Element last week opened the first big-rig hydrogen refueling station in the nation in the Port of Oakland in California. Most of the funding for the station comes from the State of California. First Element Fuel cofounder Shane Stephens says the company is not so much pivoting to the truck market as much as it is adding truck refueling to the existing car refueling network.

The equipment/supply chain around hydrogen refueling is small and limited. But the mandates driving hydrogen-truck adoption will eventually benefit the fledgling car side as well. “It’s been a bumpy road,” admits Stephens. “But the good news is that First Element has been focused 100% on developing hydrogen refueling stations, so we have been very tenacious in finding ways to make the hydrogen station part of the whole hydrogen equation more commercially viable and more efficient, so we are ready to expand into trucks faster than most.”

Stephens’ other co-founders include Joel Ewanick, who previously held sales and marketing posts at Hyundai and Porsche, as well as serving as General Motors’ chief marketing officer from 2009 to 2012, and Tim Brown, who led a sustainable energy group at the University of California-Irvine. The new station can refuel 30 trucks and can handle 200 trucks a day. More stations are coming as California moves closer to outlawing the sale and registration of new diesel trucks after 2036. California has a total of 12 ports, 11 of which are publicly owned. These ports process about 40% of all containerized imports and 30% of all exports in the U.S.

That means battery-electric trucks or hydrogen fuel-cell rigs are the future. There is a general, though not unanimously accepted, principle that fuel cells are best to replace diesel because the batteries required to transport heavy cargo will take up too much space. Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, a frequent critic of FCEVs of all sizes, is among the naysayers, and his company has developed a BEV truck that companies such as PepsiCo and Walmart have been pilot testing.

First Element has a partnership with hydrogen fuel-cell truck maker Nikola to refuel its trucks at the new Oakland station.

The market for BEV and FCEV trucks of different classes, from big rigs to smaller trucks used for intermediate cargo hauling, as well as stationary hydrogen generators, is inevitably going up in California. The use of stationary fuel-cell power at ports is also being mandated so that cargo ships, which would otherwise have to run their diesel engines while at port, can plug into a cleaner power source.


Cleaner, Greener Hydrogen

Hydrogen has always been, and remains, controversial, because as cleanly as hydrogen burns, it is mostly derived from fossil fuels, namely methane. California requires that one-third of hydrogen be derived from renewables, which is mostly biomass today. Stephens says First Element is doing a bit better than the requirement.

The federal government, which is funding hydrogen hubs out of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, has requirements and future targets for so-called “green” hydrogen, made from renewables, as well as “blue hydrogen,” which means it can be derived from fossil fuels (like natural gas), but the CO2 is sequestered. California is getting a hydrogen production and distribution hub and is receiving $1.2 billion from the feds. That hub will support 60 more hydrogen truck stations, which is enough to support 5,000 trucks and 1,000 buses.

The trucking industry is fighting federal and state mandates to phase out diesel-powered trucks. The cost of BEV and fuel-cell trucks today is roughly three times the cost of a typical $120,000 diesel truck. But there are federal and state subsidies to make up most of that cost. Over time, as electric trucks scale, the cost should come down closer to parity with diesel. Fuel-cell trucks have two advantages over batteries: The size of the fuel-cell stack is comparable to a diesel engine, and the time it takes to refill a hydrogen tank is also comparable to a gas or diesel truck.

First Element is supplying its first station and subsequent stations with liquid hydrogen, which is converted on site to compressed hydrogen. TrueZero’s hydrogen stations supplying passenger cars hit some up-time challenges in recent times because the compressors handling the conversion to compressed hydrogen were failing. “The supply chain around hydrogen is still developing, but getting better,” says Stephens. That equipment generally comes from Japan and India. Stephens says up-time reliability at stations, though, has improved to about 93%-95%.

Hydrogen Cars Fading While the future of hydrogen-powered trucks is bullish because of clean-air mandates, optimism about fuel-cell powered cars is evaporating as fast as the water vapor the vehicles emit. Shell Hydrogen said in February it will no longer operate its light-duty (passenger-car) stations in California, focusing instead on truck refueling. Shortly thereafter, Toyota began slapping fire-sale prices on its remaining Mirai fuel-cell cars with $40,000 incentives.

Toyota’s fuel-cell car future is a bit uncertain. But Honda is revving up a curious version of its CR-V crossover that runs on a fuel cell as a replacement for the internal-combustion engine, backed up by an on-board 17.7-kWh battery good for 29 miles (47 km) of all-electric range. The car is planned to be offered in California later this year on a lease program. Drivers can pilot the car as BEV-only or as a hybrid, letting the hydrogen fuel-cell power kick in when more torque is needed. Drivers also can save the energy in the battery to use later or charge the battery on the go. When the battery is fully charged and the hydrogen tank is full, the CR-V has a range of 270 miles (435 km). The market for this car is anyone’s guess, but the company only expects to lease 300 or so of these hydrogen-powered vehicles.

With the market for light BEVs downshifting a bit while consumers endure persistent post-pandemic inflation, and wait for the BEV charging infrastructure to mature, FCEV vehicles seem like a much harder sell at scale than BEVs.

About the Author(s)

David Kiley

Senior Editor, WardsAuto

David Kiley is an award winning journalist. Prior to joining WardsAuto, Kiley held senior editorial posts at USA Today, Businessweek, AOL Autos/Autoblog and Adweek, as well as being a contributor to Forbes, Fortune, Popular Mechanics and more.

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