Nikoa Motor Company hydrogen-fuel-cell truck rig

In April 2019 Nikola Motor Company unveiled its prototype Tre truck. The Arizona-based startup says the hydrogen-fuel-cell rig will travel between 500 and 750 miles, depending upon load, and can “refuel” in less than 15 minutes.

Electrifying every truck in BC would require a staggering amount of new clean electricity. But potential energy sources are emerging.

How could electrification of road freight trucking—source of 10 percent of British Columbia’s carbon pollution—help the province meet its mid-century target to reduce those emissions 80 percent below 2007 levels?

Hoda Talebian, UBC mechanical engineering PhD student, Vanier scholar, and PICS Transportation Futures team member, ran the numbers and attracted plenty of interest with the results: In order for our truck fleets to meet the requirements of BC’s 2040 emission reductions target—that is, to reduce emissions 60 per cent below 2007 levels—as of 2025 every new rig sold in the province would need to be powered by batteries or fuel cells.

Though quite ambitious, that might be doable, she thought. Then she calculated the quantity of electricity that all those all-electric rigs would require and shared her findings with Prof. Walter Mérida, her UBC supervisor. “He was impressed by the scale,” Talebian recalls. “Actually, both of us were.”

Quantifying the Demand

In British Columbia, the 1.1-GW Site C large- hydro dam, now under construction near the city of Fort St. John, has for years been the focus of intense debates on the costs and impacts of power generation. Talebian’s research had just revealed that if the province wanted to meet the 2040 emissions reduction target with zero-emissions battery-electric or fuel-cell rigs, it would need the equivalent of between 2.5 and 6.5 Site C projects to power them.

But that doesn’t mean we need more Site C projects, she says. “This is an informative paper, it isn’t talking about the infrastructure we would need to deliver on that new capacity need.”

That said, she expects the province will likely end up developing a great deal of wind and solar power.

When Energy Policy published her team’s research in April 2018, she briefly found herself fielding questions from reporters. Now, post-spotlight, she’s studying how government, utilities, and industry might most effectively plan and deploy hydrogen infrastructure, which she expects will be a critical part of the transition. 

“Fuel cells work well in the BC context, because we can use our natural gas reserves to grow it,” she explains. That’s because natural gas can be used as a feedstock to produce hydrogen, especially if the province develops carbon sequestration or utilization technology.

“We can have hydrogen coming from natural gas, and add carbon capture to that. We can grow with it and then look at wind, and biomass, and not just hydro.” 

The long-haul trucking sector is a good fit for hydrogen, she explains, because for truckers, time is money, and fuel-cell rigs can “refuel” in roughly the same time that it takes to pump an internal-combustion truck full of diesel. The same cannot be said for DC fast charging stations, she says. Also, fuel cell rigs offer a range similar to diesel trucks, which battery-electric trucks have yet to match.

“If we get thousands and thousands of battery-electric trucks on the roads, and they all want to use fast chargers…. well,  I’m not sure its a practical solution,” she says. 

“We can harness the full power of variable wind and solar energy to generate hydrogen,” she adds. “Any excess energy that these sources generated that isn’t needed in the grid could instead used to make hydrogen for transportation.” Her next publication, focused on hydrogen-fuelled trucking, is expected in late 2019.

Road transportation graph
Carbon Contributions: In her published paper, Talebian highlight road freight's contribution (13 per cent) to BC's current emissions inventory.


Link Talebian, Hoda and Herrera, Omar E. and Tran, Martino and Mérida, Walter. Electrification of road freight transport: Policy implications in British ColumbiaEnergy Policy vol. 115, December 2017, 2018