Big-engine maker Cummins shocked the trucking industry. The company says it will start building hydrogen fuel cells for Freightliner’s Cascadia heavy truck line. With its positive aspects as an alternative big rig fuel, hydrogen would almost seem the ideal fuel for use in motorhomes. Could RV manufacturers jump on board? How would hydrogen fit in your RV lifestyle?
Plenty of pluses for RVers
In his presentation to the ACT (Advanced Clean Transportation) Expo earlier this month, Cummins’ CEO Tom Linebarger told attendees, “Freightliner has an amazing electric chassis we are going to be able to put this fuel cell in.” He added, “It’s going to be our Gen 4 fuel cell. I’m really excited about that.” Is the excitement hype or reality?
Hydrogen fuel cell technology has plenty going for it. Compared to electric battery technology, hydrogen could give longer between-refuel drive ranges, a major plus for RVers. And when it’s time to refuel, instead of waiting potentially hours for an empty-to-full recharge, a hydrogen refuel takes about as long as a conventional diesel fuel stop.
Other pluses? Cargo carrying capacity is a big deal for RVers. Should battery-electric powertrains become a reality for RVs, batteries would have to go on a diet, as current technology steps hard on the scale. Those heavy batteries could really cut into how much gear you could carry in your e-motorhome. But hydrogen tanks for big chassis rigs are thousands of pounds lighter than battery packs for the same size rig. And from a planet-friendly perspective, when produced with renewable resources, hydrogen could be carbon-free.
Tiger with a knot in its tail
You may remember the oil company Esso urging you to “Put a tiger in your tank” with its gasoline. Why not put a few kilos of hydrogen in your tank? Hydrogen vehicle fueling could prove to be the tiger with a knot in its tail. While hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, the infrastructure for delivering it is far from abundant.
If you lived in California, you could find out for yourself. Toyota produces a hydrogen fuel cell car, the Mirai. It’s sold only in California, largely because the state is, for all practical purposes, the only one with consumer-oriented hydrogen fuel stations.
So how’s a day in the life of a Mirai owner? Is it time for a fill-up? Hope you live somewhere between Sacramento and San Diego along the coast. That’s where most of the handful of currently “open and pumping” hydrogen stations are. You fire up your Mirai and enjoy the quiet (nearly silent) drive to the station. Provided there isn’t a big line of other hydrogen fuel users waiting ahead of you, it’s a simple matter of pulling up to the pump, linking up the line to your car, and filling up. It’s done in a matter of less than five minutes. Provided…
How much for a fill-up?
Less than five minutes … provided you aren’t back in line behind others. Hydrogen under pressure is a cool cat. The hydrogen fuel line coming off the pump can be so cold it can literally freeze to your car. That may take a few more minutes to thaw after fueling, setting you back a bit. Meantime, you’ll have a moment to scrutinize your receipt. Hydrogen is sold be weight, by the kilogram. As of this week, the typical price for hydrogen was running around $15 or so a kilogram.
How does that price compare with gasoline? A kilo of hydrogen has about the same amount of energy as a gallon of gas. Compare that with today’s average price of regular gasoline in the Golden State—$6.06. So, almost $10 more “per gallon,” if you like. You may wonder how Toyota could sell their Mirais with that kind of fuel price. Simple. Toyota offers you free fuel for the first six years of ownership, or $15,000 worth, whichever comes first. But at that rate, that’s only the equivalent of 1,000 “gallons” worth. Still, industry says as hydrogen as a vehicle fuel gains momentum, the price at the pump should roll down. Theory has it that hydrogen will eventually sell for about the same price as gasoline.
How about the actual price of a new hydrogen fuel cell-operated motorhome? If comparing the cost difference between conventional and hydrogen commercial trucks is an indicator, expect to pay more. Buying a new diesel semi-truck today, expect to pay around $150,000, depending on options. A year ago, hydrogen fuel cell truck-building startup Nikola said they’d sell their trucks for $235,000.
Not yet planet-friendly
What about the environment? There is something to be said about tailpipe emissions that only consist of water vapor. Sounds pretty enticing. But before the hydrogen gets in your rig, it has to be produced. At present, the bulk of hydrogen is produced from coal or natural gas in a process that actually contributes to global warming by a byproduct—carbon dioxide. It’s true, hydrogen can be made from water using electricity to separate its components, oxygen and hydrogen. If the electricity used for production was from, say, wind or solar, it could become truly planet-friendly. But putting together the infrastructure needed is a way down what looks to be a very bumpy road.
Hydrogen fuel cell motorhomes? No stink, no noise, no pollution. All attractive properties. But from where we sit, don’t look to see it happen any time soon.