An artist’s rendition of a hydrogen fueling station for cars as well as for larger vehicles. Source: Advanced Emission Control Solutions, L.P.

published on December 6, 2018 - 1:29 PM
Written by David Castellon

The clock is ticking for California semi truck owners.

After years of having to replace or retrofit engines and emission systems to meet increasingly stringent state clean-air standards, a new regulation will take effect on Jan. 1, 2023 requiring all large trucks and busses on California roads to be 2010 models or newer.

That means some owners of trucks and busses operating in the state will have to make some tough decisions, not the least of which includes whether to continue running diesel-powered vehicles or go with alternative-power options that include rechargeable batteries, compressed or liquid natural gas, methane, hydrogen and propane.

Bob Gaffney believes those truck owners should pick hydrogen – particularly here in the Valley.

In fact, he and his partners at Advanced Emission Control Solutions (AECS), L.P., in Fresno believe so strongly in this that they’re working with a local gas station owner to obtain a $2.5 million California Energy Commission grant to fund the installation of the first hydrogen fueling stations for a Fresno gas station.

“Eventually, we want to have a half dozen or so,” along the Highway 99 corridor, so gas stations in Tulare and Madera counties could become involved, Gaffney said.

He and his partners plan to pursue grants to build hydrogen-production facilities here as well.

At least for now, AECS isn’t looking to own any of these pumps or be financial partners with the fuel station owners, though they do have an interest in partnering on the hydrogen-production side.

AECS started in 2008 retrofitting diesel trucks with particulate filters to comply with new state emission rules, and once trucks largely had these retrofits done or, in newer trucks, had them installed at the factories, the business turned to maintaining and cleaning the filters.

“Any business has to be ahead of the curve,” said Gaffney, adding that he and his partners began looking for a new business niche, figuring the future lay in determining how the next generation of trucks will be powered and becoming the local business specializing in that repair.

They looked at compressed and liquid natural gas, as well as hydrogen.

“We chose the pathway of hydrogen after going to the Air Resources Board – to the upper level – and talked to the people about what they felt about hydrogen, and they definitely are interested in hydrogen as being a part of what they are trying to accomplish, which is lower emissions here in the San Joaquin Valley and across California,” Gaffney recounted, noting that vehicles with hydrogen fuel cells are emission-free.

One problem is that California doesn’t have much of a hydrogen fuel infrastructure.

Currently, a handful of car manufacturers – Honda, Toyota and Hyundai among them – make cars running on hydrogen that chemically generates electricity in their motors, unlike the more-common lithium batteries that recharge through home electrical sockets and recharging stations.

Most hydrogen cars are in Southern California and the Bay Area, because that’s where most of the 29 public hydrogen-fueling stations in the state are located – along with 31 under construction – with few in between, said Stephen Davis, head of business development for AECS.

Among those in-between places are hydrogen fuel pumps at Harris Ranch’s Fast Track Shell station off Highway 198 and Interstate 5, on the far western end of the Valley, and additional hydrogen pumps are being planned in Santa Nella, northwest of Los Banos, he said.

But without any hydrogen fuel pumps on this end of the Valley, it doesn’t make sense for people to buy hydrogen cars here.

As for trucks and other large vehicles, Utah-base Nikola Motor Company – reportedly the leader in hydrogen-fueled truck development – is testing prototypes and expects to begin sales in 2021.

Gaffney said he would like to break ground on the first Fresno hydrogen pump next year, but that will depend on the grant award. He said he’s optimistic because previous grant awards focused on developing hydrogen use in the southern and northern parts of the state, and this round is focused on the Valley.

If a station is built here, the customer base likely would include people who buy hydrogen-powered cars here and people with such cars in Northern and Southern California who might route their trips across the state along the 99 instead of the 5, because they would have places to refuel, as might trucking companies that buy hydrogen-powered trucks once they’re available, Davis said.

It would open another option for fleet managers in picking the types of trucks to invest in, as it will for local governments replacing busses, garbage trucks and other heavy-duty vehicles.

“Toyota has spent billions of dollars to move hydrogen. They’re spending it on trucks, they’re spending it on automobiles, because they believe hydrogen is the future,” said Gaffney, whose business would look to maintain and repair hydrogen-powered semis and other large hydrogen vehicles, as well as cars.

He added that Mercedes Benz and Chevrolet are developing hydrogen cars.

But the interest in hydrogen may not be so strong in the trucking industry, said Michael Clark of Clovis, who, through the San Diego-based business he works for, Velocity Truck Centers, sells trucks to clients across the U.S.

He said that besides Nikola, he knows of only one other business developing hydrogen-powered trucks, while several large manufacturers, including Freightliner, are focused on developing electric- and natural gas-powered trucks.

Tesla Motors has announced plans to have its electric trucks in production next year, reportedly with a range of 500 miles on a full charge. In comparison, Nikola claims on its website to have ranges of 500-1,000 miles on a single fill-up for two of the trucks it’s developing

A big part of the reason the larger manufacturers aren’t going with hydrogen is there’s already infrastructure along the West Coast and some other parts of the country for charging or fueling these vehicles, and – just as important – the manufacturers would have to have dealerships and mechanic shops lined up to fix these trucks if they break down, while no such system exists yet for hydrogen trucks, Clark said.

Still, Davis said he has a dozen local trucking businesses interested in going to hydrogen if some fueling pumps are installed here, though he and Gaffney declined to name any.

“My main thing is we have to get things started here in Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley. We’re lagging,” Gaffney said, adding that the City of Fresno and the Fresno County Economic Development Corp. are helping AECS’ efforts.

“Southern California is on its way, Northern California is on its way and we need to do it here in our area.”

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