In April, a new series of fuel pumps opened on Petroleum Way in Sherwood Park.
A new fueling station in an area already filled with diesel and gasoline fill-up spots? How is this news?
It’s all about what’s coming out of those pumps. It’s not carbon-intense gasoline or diesel, it’s hydrogen. This station, operated on Suncor’s site in partnership with the Alberta Motor Transport Association, will support a test of new hydrogen trucks. These beta-version trucks could represent the first steps we make in reducing our province’s need for diesel fuel. But, they also represent an important test case for investors and levels of government who are betting big on the hydrogen industry.
The Alberta Government forecasts that the global hydrogen economy could be worth $11 trillion by 2050. Alberta Innovates and Emissions Reductions Alberta have spent $92 million to support 35 hydrogen projects in the province. And, the federal and provincial governments teamed up to spend about $470 million to support the building of Air Products’ $1.6 billion hydrogen plant in north Edmonton.
A lot of this investment is based not on a market that currently exists, but one that we assume will emerge. The promise of hydrogen is great; it can power a vehicle with zero emissions left behind.
But, can it power a truck that is carrying 22,000 lbs of cargo when it’s -20 Celsius? That’s what this test, run by the AMTA, aims to prove.
“We’re essentially providing a report card on these trucks,” says Trevor Van Egmond, the AMTA’s senior manager of industry advancement. “We’re looking at how they drive in the winter, how they will drive in the summer. It’s so the industry can be aware of the different technologies out there.”
It’s really a series of tests. The AMTA already has a test truck in its possession from Hyzon, an American company that’s moving into the hydrogen space. Another truck will come in the fall from Nikola, another American firm. And then there’s the hydrogen-diesel hybrid from Hydra, a company out of British Columbia. These trucks will be offered to AMTA members across Alberta, so the operators can get into the cabs and see how they perform compared to the diesel trucks they normally drive.
“It’s not a typical diesel truck, it doesn’t work exactly the same,” says Van Egmond. “The primary functions are all the same — you put it into park, drive and reverse. But the response you get is considerably different than a diesel combustion truck.”
The diesel truck takes a bit of effort to get up to highway speed, so drivers are used to flooring the accelerator in order to get it moving. The hydrogen-powered engine is far more responsive, so it gets going a lot more quickly, so drivers have to get used to “feathering” the accelerator (in this case, it really is a misnomer to call it a “gas pedal”).
“Because it’s got so much torque, a driver gets to 60 kilometres an hour substantially quicker,” says Van Egmond.
AMTA is also running the Alberta Zero Emissions Truck Electrification Collaboration (AZETEC) project. In collaboration with a series of engineering companies, two heavy-duty hydrogen fuel-cell trucks are being built in Canada. When they are ready, they will be tested on a closed track in Blainville, Quebec. Once they’re deemed to be roadworthy, they’ll be loaded up and tested on Alberta highways, in Canadian driving conditions.
“When we get these trucks, they’ll be filled at the Suncor station,” says Van Egmond. “The purpose of these trucks is to demonstrate that they have 700-to-800-kilometre range, that they can do Edmonton/Calgary return on a single tank. We’re going to run these trucks for about 80 weeks and then we’re going to pull all the data.”
Why is it important to test these vehicles in cold or other extreme weather conditions? No matter how they’re fueled, the auto industry as a whole has always tested its vehicles in places with warm, dry climates, where the engines run as efficiently as possible. That’s how vehicle manufacturers can advertise fuel mileage that comes nowhere close to what we’d see in Alberta. Or, how electric-vehicle manufacturers can brag about their products having longer ranges than are achievable in winter driving conditions.
At the Forward Slash Hydrogen Summit held in February, Eddie Robar, the City of Edmonton’s branch manager of Fleet and Facility Services, said the ETS fleet of 60 battery-powered electric buses encountered significant reduction in range when the temperature gets cold. In February, ETS and Strathcona County combined for a study on how well a hydrogen powered bus would perform in the winter.
“We’ve learned a lot from the electrification strategy,” he said. “What it takes to electrify fleets, what transition looks like, and how to do it in a sustainable way, and how do you meet your targets in an industry and a world that isn’t as grid friendly.”
Even if the tests of the hydrogen trucks go well, there will still be challenges. Insurance rates are much higher for hydrogen-powered vehicles than those with conventional engines. And, after the Suncor hydrogen station, there is only one other place in Alberta — the Air Liquide Production Plant, also in Sherwood Park — for trucks to fuel up on the blue stuff.
“In getting these trucks to our carriers, each one has a different sort of response,” says Van Egmond. “With the hydrogen fuel-cell electric, the long-range deliveries are going to be well-suited for these trucks. It all depends on the routes the carriers are driving. There are virtually no fueling stations to get hydrogen. It’s in its infancy stages, it needs to build out. We need the hydrogen companies to come to the table, and the trucking companies to adopt. It’s a bit of the chicken and the egg
$3.8 billion US. Source: Future Market Insights
$120 billion US. Source: Future Market Insights
1,450 km (That’s close to a straight run between Edmonton and Whitehorse). Source: Nikola
This article appears in the May 2023 issue of Edify