The holy grail of a nationwide hydrogen refueling network just took a big step forward. Trevor Milton, CEO and founder of electric/fuel cell truck company Nikola Motor, is confidently working on the first 32 in what is a planned 364-station build-out over the next five to seven years. The first stations will open in 2019.
Since hydrogen stations can cost between $1 and $3 million, how can Nikola afford to do this? “We’ve solved the chicken-and-egg problem,” Milton says. That’s the hydrogen conundrum—without cars in some volume, the stations don’t pencil out (unless they’re subsidized). And without the refueling network, introducing the cars is a challenge.
Milton answer is to create the market, then build the stations in-house. “We’re totally vertically integrated,” he told me. “We create our own hydrogen [using both electrolysis and steam reformation of methane], liquefy it for transportation, and dispense it at our own stations.” And the customers are the 1,000-horsepower Nikola One electric semi-trucks, 8,000 of which have already been reserved (with $1,500 deposits) by a combination of fleets and owner-operators.
“That’s what’s in our business plan,” Milton said. “The trucks are sold when we build the stations, so we have guaranteed customers and 100 percent utilization. We’re concentrating on selling to drivers who run the same dedicated routes every day.” The first 32 stations will be built, relatively concentrated, on a much-traveled route (Nikola isn’t saying where that is yet) so that “the trucks can pass seven stations without needing to refill in any direction.” With the fuel-cell range extender, the trucks have a range of 800 miles.
Taking a page from automakers such as Honda, Toyota and Hyundai, Nikola makes getting fuel for the trucks’ range extender a no brainer. The fuel is free to owners for an amazing million miles. These stations aren’t small: Each one can handle 250 trucks daily, and dispense up to 25,000 kilograms of hydrogen. And Milton says that, unlike Tesla’s Superchargers, his stations will be open to non-Nikola customers, including any and all fuel-cell cars. “We’ll be open to anyone who wants to fill up with hydrogen,” he said. “They’ll have to pay for it, though.”
The timing could be good. A 2016 Information Trends report says that by 2032, more than 20 million fuel-cell vehicles will be sold globally, and by 2050, they will be one of the fastest-growing segments. “The sales would generate cumulative revenues upwards of $1.2 trillion for the auto industry,” the report said. If the refueling network is there, they could take off even more.
According to Craig Scott, national manager for the advanced technologies group at Toyota, “We welcome everyone to the business. Opening new stations is a necessary step to promote the adoption of the technology and the cars.”
The first Nikola trucks will come off the assembly line in 2020 or 2021. Exactly where they’ll be built isn’t settled yet. “We’re talking to seven or eight states,” Milton said. “California is very interested.” And well it might be, because the trucks are zero emission, and both electric and hydrogen power are centerpieces of the state’s clean car strategy. By April, California had 331 registered hydrogen cars, but that number is expected to grow to 13,500 by 2019 and 43,600 by 2022.
The Nikola One could be the wave of the future for long-distance trucking. “I’m convinced that over time every truck in the world will be electric,” Milton said. “Electric motors are 90-plus percent efficient, and diesel won’t be able to compete.” The big challenge for electric heavy trucks is, of course, range, and that’s why the hydrogen range extender/generator is necessary.
I asked Milton what his next big announcement would be. “It will be about who we hired,” he said. “About some big executives we’ve hired from the OEMs.” After that, in the next two to six months, expect to hear where the factory is going.
Here’s video of the Nikola One unveiling: