Hydrogen, Alternative Fuels Advancing Steadily, Natso Panelists Say

Panel discussion of alternative fuels at Natso Connect 2023
Bill Zobel (left) of Pilot Flying J, David Fialkov of Natso and Randy Gard of Bosselman Enterprises discuss the future of alternative fuels during a panel session at Natso Connect on March 9 in Gravevine, Texas. (Dan Ronan/Transport Topics)

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GRAPEVINE, Texas — Like other sectors of the trucking industry, truck stop plazas are learning firsthand the challenges and opportunities they will face as hydrogen, battery-electric and other alternative fuel sources become more widespread.

That was the main theme for the three-day Natso Connect gathering.

“I do think that sometime in the next five, 10, 20 years truck stops will look materially different than they do today,” Natso Executive Vice President David Fialkov said. “I think the pace and extent of the changes that are coming in the next generation will be far more robust than it has been, mainly because the fuels that truck stops are going to sell are going to be different than the ones we have been selling.”



The early consensus among attendees appears to be that the market share for battery-electric trucks has the potential to significantly grow, especially for regional delivery companies such as Amazon.com Inc., UPS Inc., FedEx Corp., and the U.S. Postal Service, which often send their drivers on routes that are less than 200 miles per day.

But at this point, while significant improvements are being made in the range of BEVs, hydrogen-powered, fuel cell trucks are poised to make significant inroads in market share the next five to 10 years, especially for longer, over-the-road routes that typically average 400 to 600 miles a day.

“Is it hydrogen going to be the entire heavy-duty trucking market? No, certainly not,” said Bill Zobel, Pilot Flying J director of alternative fuels. “Electric trucks, diesel, biodiesel and others will play a role for a very long time, but hydrogen’s time has come.”

Zobel and Fialkov were among the panelists for a session called “Is Hydrogen the Future? Emerging Alternative Fuels.” Zobel said that for hydrogen to become cost-competitive with diesel, it must continue to drop in price. It is expected to decline from 2025’s projected cost by at least 50% in 2030.

He said one of the issues that is helping propel hydrogen’s future, besides concerns over climate change and reducing tailpipe emissions, is that the 2022 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has allocated at least $8 billion to develop a hydrogen network through the Department of Energy.

The cost of hydrogen is coming down, and there are programs out there now that are bringing down the cost of ownership of a fuel cell-electric truck to parity with a diesel truck.

Bill Zobel, Pilot Flying J director of alternative fuels

“There is an unprecedented amount of money that is being directed at this market,” Zobel said. “And the cost of hydrogen is coming down, and there are programs out there now that are bringing down the cost of ownership of a fuel cell-electric truck to parity with a diesel truck. We’re not waiting until 2030; we are doing this in the next three to five years.”

According to panelist Randy Gard, chief operating officer of Bosselman Enterprises, governors and leaders in several Midwest states are working to develop a regional hydrogen distribution and fueling network. Grand Island, Neb.-based Bosselman is working closely with the Mid-Continent Clean Hydrogen Hub, a six-state effort with officials from North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa and Missouri, and with industries including agriculture, public power, manufacturing and transportation to accelerate use of hydrogen.

 

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“We are collectively working to create the infrastructure for hydrogen. What does this development mean to the travel center community and truck stop owners? How do you get in the middle of it so you’re not left behind?” Gard said, emphasizing that industry has an opportunity to take a leadership role in the transition to alternative fuels.

“If you’re anywhere close to an interstate highway, you need to be watching this. Hydrogen is just another fuel that our customers will want and need, and we have an opportunity to provide it. Right now, it kind feels like the Wild West, especially at the retail level.”

The discussion took place at almost the same time that Indianapolis-based engine manufacturer Cummins announced it is launching a brand called Accelera, aimed at accelerating the transition to sustainable energy solutions for commercial applications.

Cummins said it will incorporate its existing research and development and new ones to create zero-emission products.

The panelists acknowledged the OEMs are building demonstration products, and over the next 12 to 18 months they will have commercial vehicles ready for the marketplace.

“My experience in the alternative fuel space is that fleets typically don’t buy 200 units; they’ll buy five or 10,” Zobel said. They’re going to try them out and give them a go, then if the cost of ownership is right, they’ll expand that.”

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