Hydrogen fuels a revolution in Chinese trucks

Analysts say fuel cell electric vehicles are the leading alternatives to internal combustion engine automobiles

By ALAN KIRK

On March 22, a trio of Chinese electric vehicle (EV) companies – Nio, Xpeng, Li Auto, all New York listed – announced that they were hiring investment advisers to assist them with secondary listings in Hong Kong.

Credit Suisse and Morgan Stanley have been appointed as Nio is looking to sell a 5% stake, valued at approximately $3.5 billion. Somewhat lower but still comparable valuations for the other two would bring a total of $7.5 billion to Hong Kong.

Surprising?

CNBC stock market guru Jim Cramer, usually unflappable, did a double take on air, also on March 22, commenting on Ark Investment fund manager Cathie Wood’s call of $3,000 per share for Tesla,

“I don’t think there is a fund manager in this country that could get away with this kind of thing other than Cathie Wood.

“But Cathie Wood actually is so good that you start thinking, ok, what is Elon Musk going to do? Maybe he’s got a lot on his mind that she has thought about and …”

And so it went for several more minutes.

The electric vehicle space is jumping and, of course, Musk almost certainly has a lot in mind that will make it even more attractive to investors.

What he’s most likely not thinking about is the large-scale application of hydrogen for EVs. He once called fuel cells “fool cells.”

But while hydrogen fuel cells are just beginning to provide serious competition to battery powered vehicles in personal transportation, they are making a large impact in the heavier vehicle commercial transportation space where large loads have to be carried over long distances.

That’s where hydrogen has the advantage.

And that’s where China, just getting to be competitive with the likes of Tesla in snazzy passenger cars, is poised to seize the lead with hydrogen-powered trucks.

The hydrogen fuel cell is a rare example of a long-established technology turning into a game-changing disrupter. It has powered spacecraft and submarines for decades. However, it made little headway in ground transportation because governments balked at the cost of building fueling infrastructure. And also because the cost of producing the raw materials was prohibitive.

That’s changing in a big way! Mainly because China has made hydrogen-powered ground transport one of the top priorities of its $560 billion a year technology investment budget.

Europe and Japan  Germany has declared 2021 the year of hydrogen technology  are running only slightly behind China. For the next decade or so, battery-powered passenger vehicles will dominate the market for low-carbon substitutes for the internal combustion engine. But batteries can’t power long-range freight transportation by truck and rail, and China is making a decisive commitment to hydrogen.

China’s commitment to hydrogen has drawn the attention of global investors.

In a March 2021 report entitled “China’s gateway to a hydrogen future,” J.P. Morgan research analysts  Han Fu and Stephen Tsui write, “Green hydrogen, a clean form of energy, clearly holds potential to play a critical role in China’s 2060 carbon neutrality ambitions.

“Fuel Cell EVs appear to be emerging as an early use case. This is an opportunity for the China hydrogen ecosystem to develop approaches to overcome technical and economic challenges, necessary for more widespread future applications. Hydrogen plays have been in market focus, and valuations are lofty.”

“The global automotive fuel cell market size was USD1.07 billion in 2020…This market exhibited a stellar growth of 44% in 2020,” according to a Fortune Business Insights study, and “is projected to grow from USD $1.73 billion in 2021 to UD $34.63 billion in 2028 at a stellar compound adjusted growth rate of 53.5% in the 2021-2028 period.”

The Fortune report adds that fuel cell electric vehicles are “the leading alternatives to the widely used internal combustion engine automobiles.” The lion’s share of the growth, will be in the Asia-Pacific region.

Ares Motor CEO Ian Hanna with some Chinese colleagues at the Wisdom Motor plant in Zhangzhou, Fujian, China. Photo: Supplied.

Already largest market

Already the largest market for Plug-in Energy Vehicles (PEV’s) with 3 million on the road. China projects a fleet of 50,000 fuel-cell vehicles (FCV’s) by 2025 and 1 million by 2030, from only 6,000 on the road in 2019.

Beijing listed hydrogen as an energy source in a public law for the first time in its 2020 Energy Law of the People’s Republic of China. It established subsidies for FCV’s through four government departments, with an emphasis on freight and urban mass transit.

China is ready to finance the refueling infrastructure required to make hydrogen-based transport economically viable. And it has a large supply of hydrogen. It is now produced as a waste byproduct by its chemical industry.

According to government directives issued in September 2020, central government subsidies for FCV’s could reach RMB 17 billion. It is depending on how quickly Chinese cities meet their targets for FCV deployment. Local governments are likely to match the central government support. Supporting between 40,000 and 60,000 new vehicles between 2020 and 2023.

China’s commitment to fuel-cell vehicles prompted a scramble by Europe and Japan to put forward their own programs.

Established Chinese automakers as entrepreneurs are launching new ventures to meet the enormous demand for FCV’s projected by the government. SAIC, a state-owned automaker, plans to produce 10,000 FCV’s a year by 2025. More ambitious is the alliance between startup Ares Motors and two established Chinese vehicle manufacturers, Fujian-based Wisdom Motors and Chery Holdings of Anhui Province.

Ares expects to produce 4,000 PEV’s and FCV’s in 2021 at Wisdom’s Fujian facility. And cross the 10,000- vehicle mark within several years.

Large international automakers are gearing up for the Chinese market. Both as OEM’s and as components manufacturers. Toyota set up a joint venture with FAW group in 2019 which will begin to deliver fuel-cell systems for trucks and buses in China in 2022.

The supply chain for FCV components, moreover, is in an early stage of development. The September government directives focused on building infrastructure (mainly refueling stations) as well as developing a robust supply chain.

This includes more efficient capture of waste hydrogen from China’s chemical industry. Also additional hydrogen production facilities, and manufacturing of fuel stacks (the hydrogen storage module for vehicles) as well as engines.

J.P. Morgan analysts explained in their March 2021 report, “With the carbon-neutrality target now in place, we are optimistic that hydrogen can replicate the success of wind/solar power. The H2 addressable market could grow >30x by 2050, to Rmb12tn, and we estimate green hydrogen’s being commercially competitive by 2030.

This expectation is backed by multiple catalysts to spawn H2 development in China, including top-down policy support, technological improvements and economies of scale.”

Hydrogen, to be sure, remains controversial.

In Europe, Volkswagen-owned Scania, one of Europe’s largest truck producers, declared last year that fuel-cell trucks will be too inefficient and costly to compete with the battery-powered alternative. Scania is betting that improvements in battery technology will allow battery-powered trucks to carry a standard 40-ton load for 4.5 hours — far more than today’s batteries can manage.

To travel several hundred miles today, an eighteen-wheeler would have to carry nothing but batteries to power the engine.

Volvo and Daimler have joined forces with Shell to make hydrogen the future commercial standard for trucking in Europe.

Dubbed “H2Accelerate,” the Shell-led program envisions a public-private partnership to create economies of scale for freight FCV’s. With a network of hydrogen fueling stations built out across Europe by the second half of the 2020s. A trade association, Hydrogen Europe, predicted that Europe would have 10,000 hydrogen trucks in operation by 2025 and 100,000 by 2030.

The United States is far behind Asia and Europe.

A former top General Motors engineer, Ian Hanna, believes in pursuing hydrogen and battery technology in tandem. A former head of GM’s systems safety operations in China, Hanna now heads Ares Motors, an ambitious OEM startup.

What distinguishes Ares is a combination of intellectual property for vehicle fuel cells and partnerships with major Chinese manufacturers that allow it to scale up vehicle production very quickly.

“We’ve got prototypes running on the road  with demonstration vehicles that are to be ready by  the end of the year. We are actually going after significant volume for this year in the thousands  of vehicles,” Hanna told Asia Times.

“And it’s with our dual approach. We’re not only a hydrogen fuel cell company. We’re  also a battery electric vehicle [BEV} company. That dual propulsion strategy  allows us to meet customer needs this year.

“The 2021 volumes will primarily be through the BEV’s. The infrastructure is well established and the technologies of course are mature, so the customer’s comfortable  with it. And then long-term we’ll be able to offer  our customers both the hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and our BEV vehicles. Only  depending upon  whatever is the best fit for their use.”

Choice of electric battery power or hydrogen fuel cells

Ares’ flagship product is a heavy truck with a choice of electric battery power or hydrogen fuel cells. The hydrogen model offers a 1,000-kilometer cruising range with a standard 43-ton load. Compared with 400 kilometers for the battery-electric vehicle version.

“For a lot of the longer-range customers,” Hanna added, “the BEV truck may not make sense. So we’ll be able to offer them both of those solutions. I think our timing will be right. We will have the customer relationships, as well as the technology to differentiate our company.

“We have our own proprietary fuel cell engines and other technology that we can build and integrate into our trucks. By contrast, competitors are doing that through non-binding partnerships. We’ve developed a lot of that technology, and our partners are part of the Ares family. A lot of our technology comes from established OEMs.

“There’s no reason for Ares to go and reinvent an electronic power system. We have great partners that already  know how to do that really well right now. We will  be  able to hit the ground with significant volume in a very short time.”

A key partnership is with Sunrise Power, China’s premier manufacturer of fuel cells, with whom Ares has a joint-venture laboratory. Ares is working with Sunrise and other partners to build hydrogen refueling stations in Europe and North America as well as China.

According to a company release, “The new Ares energy stations will ensure the infrastructure is in place to support both our BEV and FCEV vehicles.  The energy station will include facilities for charging BEV vehicles, Hydrogen fueling pumps, traditional gas and diesel pumps, and battery swap capability.”

Strong government support and a robust supply chain

The combination of strong government support and a robust supply chain for FCV technology as well as hydrogen fuel makes it possible for a startup like Ares to scale up production rapidly.

“Asia Pacific is projected to hold a major market share due to the encouraging FCEV deployment targets of governments. Coupled with increasing investments in hydrogen fueling infrastructure. Additionally, high fuel stacks manufacturing capacities in the region, owing to the presence of large-scale FC passenger car manufacturers, will also add to the regional landscape.

Ares Motor, a Canadian company with principal operations in China, is seeking a Nasdaq listing in the course of the first half of this year. It also builds city and highway buses, as well as logistic vehicles and autonomous tractors for use in port and dock areas.

Perhaps Ares’ most important advantage is to be located in China. Cost efficiency is the key to the future of hydrogen-powered transport. And the cost of hydrogen itself is the most important variable.

China now produces a third of the world’s hydrogen

China now produces a third of the world’s hydrogen. 20 million metric tons a year. Enough to cover a tenth of the country’s total energy needs. At an estimated fuel consumption of 7.5 kilograms of hydrogen for every 100 miles of road haulage, according to Fuelcelslworks.com, China’s present output potentially could power a truck fleet over 267 billion miles a year of transport. More than enough to meet the country’s present annual 6 billion ton-miles of road transportation.

The cost of hydrogen production is falling. From $6 per kilogram in 2015 to $2 per kilogram in 2025.

China led the world in deployment of cost-efficient solar energy. Many analysts expect China to do the same with hydrogen. A study by Chinese scientists argues that a $2/kg hydrogen price can be achieved quickly through electrolysis of water. It produces the purest hydrogen with the lowest overall environmental impact.

Freight and bus transportation with FCVs becomes economically viable at a hydrogen price of $3/kg. Passenger car FCVs become viable at $2/kg.

Apart from China’s comparatively low production costs for hydrogen, a shift to this fuel source contributes to China’s energy security. As of the first half of 2020 China imported 73% of its oil consumption. Substituting home-produced hydrogen for imported oil is a national security measure as well as an economic and environmental consideration.

Tianwan NPP – the largest object of economic cooperation between Russia and China

In the PRC, there are currently 50 operating industrial nuclear reactors with a total electrical capacity of 47.5 GW. According to this indicator, China is second only to the United States and France. Although, unlike the latter, where nuclear power accounts for over 70% of the country’s total electricity generation, China has only 5%; seven years ago, the figure was two times lower, and the capacity of all power units was 16 GW.

Russia has made and continues to make a significant contribution to the development of the PRC’s nuclear power industry. Through the efforts of Rosatom, the Tianwan nuclear power plant is being built. It is located in the area of ​​the same name in the Lianyungang city district of Jiangsu province. At the moment, its capacity is 5.5 GW. The facility is the largest within the framework of Russian-Chinese economic cooperation.

Start of construction

The construction of nuclear power plants in eastern China began in 1999. Then the operating capacity of nuclear power in the Asian country was only 2 GW. The Russian company had signed a general contract for the construction of the facility two years earlier with the newly formed JNPC ( Jiangsu Nuclear Power Corporation ).

© 风 之 清扬 / CC BY-SA 3.0 (Construction of the Tianwan NPP, 2010)

Atomstroyexport CJSC – Engineering Division of Rosatom State Corporation – according to the agreements, it was to complete the project of the future plant, supply the necessary materials and equipment, carry out construction and installation work and train Chinese personnel for the further operation of the nuclear power plant.

The AES-91 project, developed by specialists from the St. Petersburg Institute Atomenergoproekt ( now JSC Atomproekt ), was taken as a basis . On its basis, the detailed design of two power units with VVER-1000/320 reactors was carried out. They were put into operation as part of the first stage in the summer of 2007.

At the Tianwan NPP, Russian specialists for the first time used a system of passive protection that was new at that time. Called the Melt Localization Device. This tapered metal structure is installed under the reactor vessel. In the event of a severe accident, retains the melt and solid fragments of the destroyed core, providing insulation for the foundation under the vessel and the reactor building. Thanks to the introduction of the new technology, six years after the launch of the nuclear power plant, its first two power units were recognized as the safest in China. The station began to generate 15 billion kWh annually.

Second stage

Successful cooperation contributed to the continuation of joint work. Russia and China agreed on in the fall of 2009, and in March 2010 they signed a new contract worth $ 1.7 billion for the construction of the second stage. These are power units 3 and 4. According to official publication of Rosatom reported that the negotiations were not easy.

© Mihha2 / CC BY-SA 3.0 / wikimapia.org (Construction of the Tianwan NPP)

By this time, Beijing was cooperating with the Americans, Japanese and French in the field of nuclear energy. Their own projects were also developed. Therefore, the competition for the construction of the next two power units at the Tianwan NPP was serious. The Russian side hoped to sign the treaty back in 2008, but the discussions dragged on.

As a result, taking into account the level of safety and technical and economic indicators, the Chinese side still gave preference to the Russian project. Moreover, it was refined from the technical and operational sides, based on the experience of the accident that occurred in March 2011 at the Fukushima-1 NPP.

The second stage was launched in December 2012. Power unit No. 3 was commissioned at the beginning, and No. 4 at the end of 2018. Everything related to the operation of the nuclear reactor was designed by JSC Atomproekt, the construction, installation and commissioning works were carried out by the Chinese with the participation of specialists from Russia. Chinese President Xi Jinping called the Tianwan NPP an exemplary cooperation project.

New stage

The third stage was implemented by China on its own. The ACPR1000 reactors were installed on the blocks No. 5 and No. 6, which are based on the French project of the M310 reactor.

In the year of completion of the second stage, another agreement was concluded with the Russian side. According to which Atomstroyexport will be engaged in the design of Units 7 and 8. Later, a general contract was signed for construction. These will be new power units with pressurized water power reactors of generation “3+” and with a capacity of 1150 MW each ( VVER-1200 ). Then it was reported that the pouring of the first concrete of power unit No. 7 will begin in 2021. In March of this year, the head of the State Atomic Energy Corporation “Rosatom” Alexei Likhachev confirmed that work on the construction of the fourth stage of the nuclear power plant should begin in late spring.

After the fourth stage is completed, the Tianwan NPP with a total capacity of 8.1 GW will become the largest nuclear power plant on the planet. Until 2011, this was the Japanese Kashiwazaki-kariva ( 8.2 GW ), but after the accident at Fukushima-1, all seven of its units were stopped for modernization. This year, the sixth and seventh are to be restarted, but the fate of units 1-5 is still unknown, it is quite possible that they will never resume work.

Don’t like CO2? Nuclear power is the answer!

Renewable wind, solar, hydro and bio-fuels cannot fill the gap

by Jonathan Tennenbaum

So you don’t like CO2? What you need to know, then, is that there’s no alternative to advanced nuclear power.

Concern about the climate effects of man-caused CO2 emissions has prompted gigantic investments into so-called renewable energy sources: wind, solar, hydropower and biofuels. Meanwhile, in a huge mistake, nuclear energy – a reliable CO2-free power source producing 14% of the world’s electricity – has been left far behind.

Germany provides a bizarre example, albeit not the only one. Here the government’s commitment to its so-called climate goals has been combined, paradoxically, with the decision to shut down the country’s remaining nuclear power plants by 2022.

Would it not be more rational, if we believe that human emissions of CO2 are destroying the planet, to expand nuclear energy as quickly as possible, rather than shut it down?

Last December the influential German magazine Der Spiegel ran a story with the title, “Can New Reactor Concepts Save Us from the Climate Collapse?” The article reports on how numbers of international investors and firms, including Bill Gates and his TerraPower, are engaged in a race to develop advanced nuclear reactor technologies as the key to eliminating world dependence on fossil fuels. A goal that could never be attained by the so-called renewable sources alone.

What should we fear most?

Addressing readers who remain terrified of nuclear energy, Spiegel writes: “According to estimates, 800 000 people die every year from the smoke produced by coal, containing toxic substances such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury or arsenic. But concepts must also be demonstrated for how to dispose of the toxic substances contained in used-up photovoltaic cells.”

The magazine explains that “energy generation nearly always claims victims and creates some pollutants. The question is, what costs and risks are we ready to accept? What should we fear most? Global warming, which is sure to come, or a possible regional reactor catastrophe? The objections to nuclear energy are justified. But in view of climate change, is it right to reject nuclear technology altogether?”

New reactor designs such as the traveling wave reactor, the molten salt reactor and small modular reactors promise to be much safer and cheaper than conventional nuclear power. And to have broader ranges of applications. Some could even “burn” nuclear waste as a fuel. Therefore eliminating the need for very long-term storage of radioactive material, which is a major argument against nuclear energy. Standardized modular construction would allow nuclear reactors to be factory-produced in much shorter times.

On this basis, a massive expansion of nuclear power worldwide might be accomplished within the space of 10-15 years. The rapid build-up of nuclear power in France, in response to the 1973 “oil shock,” provides a certain historical precedent.

New agenda

There is no doubt that nuclear energy is back on the world agenda. Even for many of those who have been bitterly opposed to it in the past. And nuclear energy – in the form used today – still has serious problems. But new reactor concepts are on the table. That addresses those issues and could completely redefine the role of nuclear energy in the world economy.

I shall describe some of these reactor concepts in a bit of detail. But first I should try to establish clarity on a crucial point.

I believe we are facing a branching point in global energy policy. What should be the priority? Assuming it should be a goal to drastically reduce world emissions of CO2 in the medium and long term – which I don’t want to argue about here – is it wise to invest so much in renewable energy sources, as many nations are doing today? Or should we allot only a limited role to the renewables? And go for a massive expansion of nuclear energy instead?