The first major hydrogen filling station in the US opens in California

The first commercial hydrogen fueling station for large trucks in the U.S. is operational at the Port of Oakland, a small step toward what hydrogen advocates see as a clean new future for long-haul transportation.

The small station, which now serves 30 hydrogen fuel cell trucks, could mark the start of a nationwide fuel cell truck refueling network. It can also flop.

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The challenges are enormous. Hydrogen fuel does duration – no less than four times more expensive than petrol or diesel. The fuel cells, which power electric motors to propel the truck, are also extremely expensive.

Making hydrogen itself is now a dirty process that generates greenhouse gases, although green hydrogen production is an emerging option, and even more expensive. Hydrogen advocates are banking on the idea that scaling up production will lower prices

California will ban sales of new diesel trucks by 2036. Only new trucks with an emission-free exhaust will be admitted. Emission requirements already apply to trucks entering ocean ports. And there are only two technologies available to achieve that goal: battery-electric trucks and hydrogen fuel cell trucks. “We believe a large portion of those will be hydrogen vehicles,” said Matt Miyasato, head of public policy at hydrogen fuel distributor FirstElement Fuel.

FirstElement, through its True Zero brand fuel stations, is the largest distributor of fuel for hydrogen vehicles in the US. Miyasato spoke Tuesday at a ceremony marking the station's opening attended by state officials including Liane Randolph, chairman of the California Air Resources Board; and Tyson Eckerle, clean transportation advisor for Governor Gavin Newsom's business development office, Go-Biz. Primary funding for the Oakland station is provided by state money channeled through the Air Resources Board and the California Energy Commission.

A pump at a gas station.

A hydrogen pump at FirstElement's True Zero hydrogen filling station at the Port of Oakland.

(Russ Mitchell/Los Angeles Times)

Hydrogen fuel holds great promise for cleaner air. It is not a fossil fuel. A fuel cell is a type of battery that absorbs hydrogen and emits only water vapor.

However, producing hydrogen itself can be very dirty. Most hydrogen produced today requires methane, a fossil fuel that contributes heavily to greenhouse gas emissions. The industry is working on production alternatives, including capturing and storing carbon through the combustion of methane, or eliminating methane altogether to make green hydrogen, using an electrolyzer to split the hydrogen and oxygen of water. Both alternatives are unaffordable without government subsidies.

The federal government is doling out $8 billion to boost what it calls the “hydrogen economy” by creating so-called hydrogen hubs. One will be in California, which is expected to raise $1.2 billion for the project.

Eckerle said the hub's funding will enable the construction of an additional 60 hydrogen fueling stations in California, enough to serve 5,000 trucks and 1,000 buses.

The vehicles themselves are also expensive. Both battery-electric and hydrogen fuel cell trucks can cost three times as much or more than a $120,000 diesel truck. Those who purchase the trucks may qualify for state and federal grants to cover most of the initial costs.

Battery electric is gaining a foothold in the mid-size van market, but hydrogen could have an edge in long-haul transport. Although a fuel cell is similar in size to a diesel engine, a battery large enough for long-haul trucks adds weight and bulk and reduces the total freight load the truck can deliver. And while charging a battery-electric truck can take hours, hydrogen refill time is more comparable to filling up with diesel.

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