Commentary: Hydrogen hubs could hasten switch from diesel in big rigs


President Biden’s $65 billion infrastructure bill contains $8 billion for regional hubs to develop ways to produce and distribute hydrogen fuel. One is planned for the Pacific Northwest and should help haulers and truck manufacturers in Renton and Portland in their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Specifically, long-distance haulers need a network of hydrogen fueling stations (like today’s truck stops) along with affordable trucks and fuel. Hub researchers’ added challenge is 95 percent of the hydrogen used in commercial vehicles comes from high-temperature steamed methane where CO2 is released.

Green hydrogen, absent of CO2, uses lots of electricity to break water into hydrogen and oxygen (electrolysis), but it is expensive. In 2021, the International Energy Agency calculated green hydrogen production costs are more than three times higher when compared to manufacturing methane derived hydrogen.

A Northwest hub makes sense. Our state has an abundance of low-cost hydropower generated primarily by Columbia and Snake rivers dams. Surplus electricity from renewable sources could be directed to electrolysis plants. 

For example, Douglas County PUD is constructing a pilot electrolysis plant near East Wenatchee that will use surplus power from Wells Dam located north of Chelan on the Columbia River. Washington’s Legislature provided a grant for the project.

According to 2021 Environmental Protection Agency data, transportation was responsible for 30 percent of greenhouse gases in our country, of which 80 percent comes from cars and trucks. Nearly a quarter of the CO2 emitted in the transportation sector comes from medium and heavy-duty trucks.

Replacing diesel engines in long-haul trucks (Class 8) is expensive and a mammoth task. The Bureau of Transportation estimates there are roughly 4.5 million big rigs operating in the U.S. They are the trucks and trailers we commonly see on our highways carrying cargo hundreds of miles and needing short refueling times — 15 minutes compared to an hour. 

Hydrogen and battery powered trucks are expensive to purchase even with Washington state’s commercial vehicle tax credit covering up to $100,000 of the incremental cost for new alternative fuel vehicles. 

According to the International Council on Clean Transportation last December, the purchase price of a Class 8 hydrogen was $359,500, compared to $474,900 for  battery operated, and $143,500 for diesels. The added research should benefit truck manufactures as well. PACCAR’s Renton plant assembles Kenworth and Peterbilt trucks, and Oregon where Daimler Portland’s factory makes Freightliners.

Nikola Motors, a U.S. maker of hydrogen trucks, claims its vehicles can get 12 to 15 miles per gallon (mpg), well above the average 6.4 mpg for a diesel truck. Two years ago, Nikola Motors, based in Phoenix, announced it launched a roadmap for 700 fueling stations across our country.

European Union leaders are already investing heavily in hydrogen fuel research believing it is a key to eliminating CO2 discharges from vehicles.   

For example, one new technology is called pyrolysis. Hopefully, it will allow Europeans to pipe hydrogen much as natural gas now travels long distances across the country and under water. Hydrogen created by pyrolysis is an adaptation of an industrial process developed over the years. It was designed to remove CO2 from the process creating charred wood and organic matter. 

Developing hydrogen into a commercially viable fuel takes money — lots of it. Europeans are banking on hydrogen fuel technologies to lead the way to substantial greenhouse gas reductions and a big chunk of the European Union’s 11 billion euros ($13.3 billion) climate initiative centers on hydrogen.

Hopefully, now that hydrogen technology is growing in acceptance, there will be greater attention to accelerating research and development, scaling up production and finding ways to reduce costs.

That’s welcome news.


Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist.  He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at