The wheels are being set in motion for a revolution in heavy duty trucking. A pilot project to test the feasibility of using hydrogen to power electric drive trucks with zero tailpipe emissions is underway in Alberta.
Called the Alberta Zero Emission Truck Electrification Collaboration (AZETEC), the project is intended to demonstrate that using electric motors to power heavy duty trucks is feasible and cost competitive with the internal combustion diesel engines used today.
The $15 million project, led by the Alberta Motor Transport Association (AMTA) and partially funded by Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA), includes the design and build of two hydrogen fuel cell electric trucks that will move freight year round between Edmonton and Calgary starting in July, 2021.
These 64 tonne, B-train tractor-trailers, capable of travelling up to 700 kilometres between refueling, will demonstrate the importance of guiding innovation to fit with the unique demands of transportation in Alberta such as heavy weights, long distances, and inclement weather.
Rather than using heavy batteries to energize the electric motors, AZETEC will test fuel cells instead. As reported by the CBC, the hydrogen will be produced by the Canadian gas industry.
AZETEC grew out of the research work done by the Canadian Energy Systems Analysis Research Initiative (CESAR) at the University of Calgary, with support from the Transition Accelerator. Jessica Lof, hydrogen research lead with CESAR, explained to 360 Energy that using hydrogen fuel cells to power electric motors, instead of diesel to power internal combustion motors, addresses many of the issues facing heavy transportation today. “Air pollution and climate change concerns are major reasons for the change, but not the only reasons.”
Also appealing to the trucking industry is that electric drive heavy duty vehicles have high torque, lower maintenance cost, and quieter operations compared to their noisier diesel counterparts.
The energy needed to move a typical 27 tonne gross load over a distance of 750 km is substantial. It is equivalent to the electricity used by 78 Alberta households for a day. Moving shipments of this size and distance with batteries is likely prohibitive because of lengthy recharge times and battery weights that would sacrifice payload. Using hydrogen fuel cells to power these vehicles will make the vehicles comparable in weight and refueling times to traditional diesel trucks and therefore have a significant advantage over batteries.
Ms. Lof noted that Alberta can make hydrogen from natural gas at extremely low cost. Carbon dioxide (CO₂) is a by-product from that production process. CO₂ is also a greenhouse gas (GHG) that contributes to global warming. In order to reduce emissions from this process CESAR research shows that carbon capture and storage is a desirable and viable option. Alberta’s geology can securely store vast amounts of the CO₂ in underground caverns.
Alberta has the technical expertise to be in the transportation fuel business for the foreseeable future. Lof sees hydrogen production as a valuable new diversification opportunity for the Canadian gas industry. Heavy duty transportation would be an anchor consumer of hydrogen for the potential growth of this market.
Dr. David Layzell is the Director of CESAR. He also briefed 360 Energy on the rationale that paved the way for this research. Layzell believes that climate policy in Canada will ultimately fail to deliver if it only focuses on reducing carbon emissions. Effective climate action requires transformation at the energy system level. System change will have to provide compelling benefits when compared to existing arrangements. He believes that AZETEC meets these criteria and has the potential to be part of a transition pathway to a low carbon future..
The pilot project will demonstrate that this technology is credible from technical, economic and social perspectives. There are certainly compelling climate emissions reasons to make the switch to clean hydrogen fuel from diesel. In 2017, freight trucks accounted for 60 MT of GHG emissions or over 8% of Canada’s total. Scaling up this pilot project would significantly help Canada meet its climate goals.
In 2021, Albertans will see hydrogen powered electric trucks rolling along Highway 2, the major corridor between Edmonton and Calgary. They could be witnessing the beginning of a freight revolution that may well spread throughout the country.