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First Hydrogen-Powered Truck in Texas Hits Houston Roads

Drivers will drive the Lone Star State's inaugural hydrogen-powered freight truck route, delivering plastic resins from Mont Belvieu to the Port of Houston for Exxon Mobil as part of a two-week pilot.

hydrogen fuel cell
(TNS) — The first time Rodrigo Peña climbed into the Hyzon truck's cabin and eased his foot off the break, it wasn't the awe of being inside the first hydrogen-powered freight truck to be operated in Texas that struck him.

It was the silence.

"I could hear rocks pinging off the gravel in the yard — I could hear people blocks away," he said. "It was like being in a huge golf cart."

Peña and two other drivers for logistics company Talke will drive the Lone Star State's inaugural hydrogen-powered freight truck route, delivering plastic resins from Mont Belvieu to the Port of Houston for Exxon Mobil as part of a two-week pilot.

While the pilot is temporary, civic and corporate leaders along the Ship Channel expect it to help jumpstart new investments and government incentives aimed at using hydrogen to help decarbonize the shipping and trucking sectors. Five entities, including the University of Texas at Austin, Chevron, Air Liquide and the Center for Houston's Future announced last month that they had applied to the U.S. Department of Energy to be designated as one of as many as 10 regional clean hydrogen hubs, a distinction that could bring the region a slice of $7 billion in federal funding for hydrogen projects.

Subsidies like that will be key to get hydrogen trucking off the ground, said Parker Meeks, president and interim CEO of Mendon, New York-based Hyzon Motors. He said the hydrogen hub funding would help on the fuel side, but it doesn't include funding for the trucks. That changed with the Inflation Reduction Act signed into law this year, which will pump $400 billion into clean energy funding, including funding to help lower emissions at ports.

"This transition at the start is quite expensive, and if we put all that on operators it will take a long time," Meeks said. "We don't anticipate being on subsidy longer than we need to, but the IRA gives us that immediate opportunity. We always planned on getting a truck to Houston, and that time is now that we're getting that subsidy money to Houston."

Houston is already the largest producer of hydrogen in the country, used largely for refining and petrochemical processes. But the region, and much of the country outside of California, lacks the infrastructure to make it feasible for use in freight trucks or cargo ships. Even the hydrogen used for the Port of Houston pilot projected was shipped from an Air Liquide facility in North Las Vegas, Nevada, even though an Air Liquide facility produces hydrogen just up the road in La Porte.

The Nevada facility is one of a handful of sites in the country that can liquify hydrogen, packaging it at a pressure of 7,500 pounds per square inch, said Laura Parkan, Air Liquide's vice president of hydrogen energy for the Americas. Only three hydrogen fueling stations exist for heavy trucks, all in the greater Los Angeles area.

Even so, using hydrogen to lower greenhouse gas emissions from trucking makes more sense than making them run on electric batteries, which would have to be so large to power the them that it would be difficult for the vehicles to carry much else, according to a recent study from consultants McKinsey & Co. The hydrogen fuel cells are larger than traditional engines too, but not by that much, said Richard Heath, CEO and president of Baytown logistics firm Talke USA. His diesel-powered trucks typically carry 93,000 pounds, but the Hyzon truck will carry 82,000 pounds, and rather than using the 40-foot containers that usually travel this route, they'll switch to 20-footers.

The Hyzon trucks can hold up to about 50 kilograms to hydrogen at a time and, rather than burning the liquified gas, the fuel cell strips electrons from the hydrogen atoms, creating electricity that power's the truck's drive train. They can get about 300 to 350 miles on a full tank, said Cory Shumaker, head of Hyzon's business development in the Americas.

The smaller carrying capacity hasn't scared off Talke's customers, who Heath said were excited about the pilot program.

Still, he said it remains economically unfeasible to buy a hydrogen-powered truck. Hydrogen in California is expensive now, with a price tag of about $10 a kilogram, equivalent to about a $5 gallon of gasoline. Companies are working to bring those prices down as the technology scales.

"It's not economically feasible now, but this is part of the development," Heath said. "This is going to take the collaboration of a lot of different people and a lot of different companies."

© 2022 the Houston Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.