Port of Houston’s test trucks handle like golf carts

For decades, the image of the 18-wheeler has been that of a smoke-belching behemoth, the grinding gears and hissing brakes synonymous with the power of the diesel engine.

But a 20-truck fleet powered by hydrogen fuel cells will begin rolling across the Port of Houston later this year in a test of whether the vehicles can improve air quality and still provide enough heavy lifting to handle cargo.

In the largest demonstration project of its kind, the electric fleet will unload containers from ships and deliver them to a Wal-Mart warehouse.

“We’re looking at our carbon footprint,” said Aston Hinds, senior environmental affairs manager for the port. “If the technology proves out, that would make this potentially quite appealing.”

Hydrogen can be produced from a variety of source materials. In this case, it will come from natural gas to take advantage of the low price and abundant supply.

A $3.4 million grant from the Department of Energy will cover much of the cost; participating businesses also will absorb some of the expenses. A $500,000 grant from the Texas Emission Reduction Program will help pay for a hydrogen fueling station, which will be open to the public.

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Fuel cells convert hydrogen to electricity, producing water as a byproduct; the electricity powers the trucks’ motors.

They are promoted as having zero emissions and near-silent operations.

“It’s like driving a golf cart,” said Vic La Rosa, president of Total Transportation Services, which will provide drivers.

People have talked about the potential of hydrogen-powered vehicles for years, but unanswered questions – including whether the market is large enough to justify building them, and whether the fuel will be readily available – have stalled development.

Unlike efforts to expand the use of natural gas as a transportation fuel, however, this project isn’t aimed at creating a broader market for hydrogen vehicles.

“We’re not expecting to see a hydrogen station on every corner,” said Elena Craft, a health scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund Texas office, which was instrumental in securing the funding.

It is, instead, about determining whether the trucks work well enough to play a viable role in the battle against dirty air.

Hydrogen by pipeline

The Houston-Galveston Area Council funneled the grant to several key players: Total Transportation Services; Vision Motor Corp., which will manufacture the trucks in California; and Air Products, which will produce and deliver the hydrogen through a pipeline.

The Department of Energy grant was available for zero-emission freight transport equipment, and Craft said only Houston and Los Angeles were eligible because the two regions historically have had the nation’s most serious ozone problems. Houston’s air quality has improved over the past two decades, but it remains in violation of federal limits for ozone, or smog – a potential health hazard created when sunlight heats chemicals emitted mostly by tailpipes and smokestacks.

Craft said this project will be the first “semi-large-scale” demonstration of the technology, with the first trucks expected to arrive in Houston late this year.

Hydrogen was chosen as a fuel both because it is cleaner than natural gas and because the hydrogen-powered electric motors are more powerful than internal combustion engines fueled by liquefied natural gas, said Shelley Whitworth, air quality program director for the Houston-Galveston Area Council.

Replacing 20 diesel-powered trucks with hydrogen-powered trucks could have a measurable impact, even among the hundreds of trucks that rumble across port property every year. The Environmental Defense Fund calculated that the project could replace 200,000 gallons of diesel a year, reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 2,180 tons.

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That’s significant, but Whitworth said the real goal is to see how well the trucks work.

“It’s one thing to have a really clean truck, but it’s another to have them operate as needed,” she said.

Vision Motor Corp. previously has built two hydrogen-powered heavy duty trucks. Vision CEO Martin Schuermann said Total Transportation Services is testing the vehicles at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.

Vision was founded in 2008 and also makes a smaller, hydrogen-powered terminal tractor.

$270,000 each

The Port of Houston project is the company’s biggest contract yet, Schuermann said.

He said each truck is expected to cost $270,000 once it goes into commercial production, but the project cost is slightly higher, at $300,000.

Whitworth said it’s common for a technology to be more expensive in early stages.

La Rosa, whose company also operates trucks that run on natural gas and conventional diesel, said his drivers love the hydrogen-powered trucks “1,000 percent better, because they don’t go home at night smelling like diesel.”

Total Transportation Services began working at the Port of Houston last year, and La Rosa said the company hopes to expand here.

Rather than competing with the oil companies, he said he hopes this project can, once proven, serve as a way to offer zero-emissions technology to the oil and gas industry.

Greener energy

Replacing 20 diesel-powered trucks with hydrogen-powered vehicles could have an effect on air quality. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, the annual emissions displaced include:

39 tons: nitrogen oxides

0.8 tons: particulate matter

2,180 tons: carbon dioxide