Trevor Milton Defends Nikola Hydrogen Trucks

Hydrogen has failed spectacularly in cars, but could it find a market in long haul trucking? Trevor Milton thinks so, and with the recent explosive IPO of Nikola Motors, hydrogen has become a hot topic in the world of zero emissions transport.

I always say “hydrogen cars are for morons”, and Trevor Milton agrees on that point –– he thinks batteries work best in cars. But in a post published today on LinkedIn, he makes the case for why a hydrogen fuel cell powered Semi truck might be preferable to a pure battery electric Semi. Let’s go through his post line by line together and see if he has a point:

Hydrogen vs Battery Electric. Why Nikola is the leader. Reality sets in.

LinkedIn

Alright, you already lost me. That’s the headline you’re going to go with? Regardless of whether hydrogen or batteries work best for long haul trucking, one thing is clear: Nikola is not the leader.

The company has 0 products on the market, and expects to generate $0 of revenue in 2020. Many people have serious doubts about whether they’ll ever be able to ship a quality product at all –– it remains to be seen.

Next year, they will have a European company (CNH IVECO) manufacture a battery electric truck for them in Europe with 250 – 300 miles of range. It will compete against the Tesla Semi, with 500 miles of range. The Nikola Tre is essentially just a standard IVECO truck with a Nikola shell over it and an electric powertrain, so production should be pretty straightforward as long as they can secure the battery supply they need. Nevertheless it’s unclear whether this first (outsourced) truck will be a good EV. Many companies have tried to make EVs, but there are few profitable success stories.

In 2023 or later, after they build some hydrogen filling stations, they plan to offer hydrogen fuel cell vehicles like the Nikola One and Two in addition to the battery powered Nikola Tre.

If you’re like me you’re scratching your head about now. They’re doing battery trucks first, then hydrogen? Aren’t those two completely different strategies? Won’t those separate product lines step on each other’s toes, and confuse each other’s customers? Trevor doesn’t think so:

BEV vs FCEV. What people don’t understand is they don’t compete. They complement each other.

LinkedIn

Okay, I still have a hard time understanding how two trucks with two different drivetrains don’t compete but I’ll entertain this thought. You have to at least give Trevor props for not saying they “compliment” each other this time:

Hey, I make a lot of spelling mistakes too. Don’t sweat it Trevor

I get into the details here about the advantages and disadvantages of each.

LinkedIn

Okay, when?

FCEV is much better for 300+ miles applications and BEV is usually better under 300 miles. Before you go throw a fit, open your engineering mind and keep reading.

LinkedIn

The top end Tesla Semi was advertised with a 500 mile range on the highway, fully loaded, in 2017. What will the range on the long range Tesla Semi be when it delivers? I don’t know, but it’ll definitely be more than 300 miles. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it come in well over the 600 mile mark. It seems Trevor is confusing the best technology he has with the best battery technology that exists.

But let’s open our engineering minds and keep reading…

It is true, BEV is more efficient, but it also takes expensive grid energy to charge your BEV truck Why? I detail that out as well. FCEV takes more energy but you can get cheaper PPA (Power Purchase Agreements) on the freeway so it washes out and actually becomes cheaper to operate compared to BEV within the city utility.

LinkedIn

Trevor starts by admitting the obvious: battery electric vehicles are more energy efficient than hydrogen fuel cells. That means a battery electric vehicle needs less electricity to travel the same distance compared to a fuel cell vehicle.

Before even completing the sentence, Trevor contradicts himself by calling grid electricity “expensive”. But if hydrogen vehicles are less energy efficient, that means they need more electricity to travel the same distance. Using more electricity always costs more, meaning hydrogen will be more expensive.

So how is Trevor claiming hydrogen fuel cells are cheaper? He says that battery electric trucks must be charged in the city, and they will pay much higher prices for power than his hydrogen factories and stations will pay to do electrolysis.

Of course, this is a ridiculous and slightly dishonest comparison. You can charge battery electric trucks anywhere, from any power source. If you want to charge them in the city, thats fine. If you want to charge them on the highway, you can do that too. You can get power from a utility, or generate power yourself. Furthermore, Tesla has promised to guarantee a 7¢ / kWh electricity rate for Tesla Semi at their Megacharger stations (which will be built out across US highways and cities).

Unless the world is 100% on renewable energy, using more energy releases more emissions. You may not be generating any emissions yourself, but that clean power you’re wasting on electrolysis could have been used to power something else that’s now going to release emissions instead. The correct thing to do is pursue the most energy efficient solution. Incorrectly assuming that BEV trucks have to pay more for electricity does not change anything about the fact that battery powered trucks use less energy to travel the same distance as fuel cell vehicles.

So why can’t BEV run the same energy costs? It’s simple, BEV trucks stay within the city limits and require utility energy to charge. FCEV run freeways bypassing utilities where Nikola provides 20-year PPA for h2 production so the rate is always fixed.

LinkedIn

If you’re going to compare battery electric trucks and fuel cell trucks, you need to compare them in the same use case. Either compare city use to city use, or highway use to highway use.

If you’re assuming the BEV is going to be used in the city and pay a ton for power while the hydrogen truck will get electricity for next to nothing, all you’re doing is comparing the cost of cities and rural areas. Not battery vs hydrogen.

Let’s take this line of reasoning one step further. Did you know it’s cheaper to fill a Hummer than a Prius? It’s true!

Sure, a Prius is more efficient. It gets 50 miles per gallon, while a Hummer only gets 9. To an untrained reader that’s not a genius like Trevor, the Prius may appear to be 5 times more efficient and 5 times cheaper (since the Hummer needs 5 times more fuel).

But most Prius drivers live in California where gas is over $5 a gallon. Hummer drivers live in the American heartland, where they can fill up for less than $1 a gallon. When you look at it this way, a Hummer is much cheaper to fuel than a Prius. That’s not just comparing California fuel prices to middle America fuel prices, Hummers are just better! Don’t hate.

What is the cost to charge BEV vs. FCEV?

Now we go into detail. One BEV truck stores 1.1 MWh (1,100 kWh). You pay on average $.26 per kWh in California for that energy plus demand charges, so over $.30 per kWh (Why can’t it be cheaper? I outline that is this as well. Keep reading). It takes about $330 to charge a BEV semi-truck in most parts of CA compared to $240 for Nikola provided green hydrogen. (500/8 mp kg=62 kg x $4.00) We are now approaching $2.50 per kg of hydrogen so that gap widens in the future.

LinkedIn

On the Tesla Semi website the listed specs say that fully loaded, at highway speeds, the truck uses less than 2 kWh per mile. With 500 miles of range, that means the battery is less than 1 MWh, not 1.1 MWh. And again, Tesla is guaranteeing a 7¢ / kWh wholesale rate. If you have enough solar and storage, you could pay far less than that. The key is you can charge a battery electric truck from any power source which means if you’re a business and you have access to low cost electricity at your factory, you can charge your truck with that too while it’s loading.

Correcting Milton’s flawed math, the cost to charge a Tesla Semi comes in at less than $70. Many SUV owners pay more than that just to fill up their car’s tank. At $240, Hydrogen comes out 3.5 times more expensive just using the correct BEV numbers in Milton’s own formula. It’s probably even worse than that.

Why can’t you just add batteries to buffer BEV charging to compete with h2? You would need the same kWh for grid buffering as you do with vehicles coming in. This means for every BEV truck sold, in order to get low energy costs, you would need the same size in battery storage to take cheap energy off the grid over a 24 hour period. So how many batteries are needed on the truck and how many batteries are needed for grid storage to compete with fuel cell?

LinkedIn

Tesla has Powerpacks at every Supercharging site (Megapacks for Supercharger V3). With software like Autobidder that does automatic energy trading and grid rebalancing, and the ability to sell electricity to cars they actually make money on these batteries. However, you don’t need to completely depend on batteries. During the daytime solar energy can power the car directly. Moreover, on-site batteries are only needed if the grid isn’t clean.

If the grid is 100% clean in the future and can support your load, there’s no need for on-site storage at all. Tesla is deploying large utility scale battery projects, as well as harnessing Powerwalls in peoples homes to create “virtual power plants” that will make grid energy cleaner, even if you don’t have batteries on-site. That means the grid will just automatically be clean for everyone, and nobody has to worry about it. As the cost and longevity of battery cells increases, on-site battery storage at charging stations should be very manageable in terms of cost.

The other thing people miss is batteries last much longer in stationary storage than they do in cars. They get used a lot less aggressively, and losing 5% of your capacity doesn’t matter like it does in a car. Even if you’re at 50% capacity, just add more capacity and keep going. The old batteries are still useful, even when they’re old. The battery isn’t going to stop working just because it’s degraded a little bit. Batteries don’t die completely, they just lose capacity slowly over time. When they’re no longer useful, they can be recycled to help pay for a replacement.

Stationary storage batteries are already being used at Superchargers all around the world, and there’s absolutely no reason they can’t be used at Megachargers too –– especially as the technology evolves. Anyone who says batteries won’t work is just spreading FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt about a new technology), and ignoring the reality that they’re already being used successfully today. By the time the first Semi delivers, managing batteries at these charging sites will be old news for Tesla.

500-mile BEV Truck: 1,100 kWh since 90% useable= 1MWh or 61,000 five amp hour cells that cost Tesla about $1.75 per cell plus $.25 per cell in battery housing costs and bms. $122,000 per truck in batteries. If you add batteries to buffer grid, now you’re another $120,000 per truck. $240,000 total. With only 2k-3k cycle life. I’m being generous

LinkedIn

Hmmm, I thought they only went 300 miles. Wonder what 500 mile BEV truck he’s talking about? 😂

According to Reuters, Tesla is putting technology into production that will bring the cost of a battery pack below $100 / kWh –– as low as $80 / kWh. If true, this would bring the price of a battery electric vehicle below the price of gasoline powered cars.

Using the correct pricing figures, Tesla Semi Long Range’s 1,000 kWh battery could cost about $80,000. The Standard Range battery would be roughly $48,000.

When you look at the Tesla Semi’s pricing, the Long Range version costs $180,000 and the Standard Range version costs $150,000. If the battery really costs $122,000, do you think that price point makes sense? Or does the $80 / kWh price make more sense? Once again, Trevor is making the mistake of confusing his best technology with Tesla’s best technology.

Tesla Semi doesn’t need $240,000 of batteries that will last 2k – 3k cycles. Trevor has exaggerated the cost by 3x. The truth is only $50,000 – $80,000 of batteries are needed, and they will stay strong for over 4,500 cycles.

4,500 cycles might not sound like a lot, but keep in mind that’s a full cycle depth of discharge –– from 0% to 100% and back down to 0%. There are 261 working days in a year. If you were running a Robotaxi or heavy usage truck and did a full charge and discharge cycle every day, 4,500 cycles will last you for over 17 years. And that’s if you’re driving a full 500 miles, fully loaded, every day.

But after 17 years, you’re going to have to buy this big expensive replacement battery right? $50,000 – $80,000 for a new battery might sound expensive, but let’s look at it as a per mile cost. With 4,500 cycles at 500 miles per cycle you’re going to get at least 2.25 million miles out of this battery. Divide $80,000 for a new battery pack by 2.25 million miles and you get about 3 and half cents per mile before you even count the rebate from recycling your old battery. Realistically, after millions of miles and over a decade you might want to buy a new truck. Plus, this assumes battery prices never go down (a bad assumption). Currently, battery prices are falling fast! What’s the cost of a replacement going to be in 17 years? $5,000? $500? $5? $4.20?

Maybe Trevor is being generous about what Nikola can do, but battery technology has now advanced to the point where it beats everything out there –– both polluting and zero emissions options. Those still in denial just haven’t looked at the latest data.

Turn a truck 2x a day which is what most fleets will want to do to prevent an asset sitting idle, you would get less than 3-year life on $244,000 batteries on BEV and you lost 30% SOC. You’re BEV is now a 350-mile after just 3 years. Game over. Why?

LinkedIn

Maybe Nikola only has crappy batteries that degrade fast, but that’s not the case everywhere. Soon the Nikola Tre and the Tesla Semi will start deliveries. Let’s see if either of those trucks only last 3 years. My guess is one of them might.

You can run hydrogen 24/7 and it only takes 15 minutes to top off and continue on the road. Hydrogen tanks last 20 years.

LinkedIn

It only takes 30 minutes to add 400 miles to a Tesla Semi. Unlike hydrogen, you can charge up while you’re loading or unloading, or while you stop to rest –– remember, truck drivers have a mandatory 30 minutes of rest every 8 hours for safety. At at average speed of 60 mph that’s 480 miles of travel before you’re legally required to stop –– less than the range of the Tesla Semi. When there are barely any stations, charging time isn’t really an advantage for hydrogen. You’ll end up going out of the way to find a station, and you better hope they have hydrogen available. If they’re out or their electrolyzer is broken, you’re screwed.

Fuel cell has minimal rebuild costs after 20,000 hours ($5,000-$10,000 compared to $240,000 BEV battery replacements). We have a cost per mile of FCEV lower than BEV.

LinkedIn

Wait, what? A hydrogen fuel cell has $10,000 of “rebuild costs” every 20,000 hours??? I’ve never heard about this. This sounds a little scary. Do I really want someone “rebuilding” my fuel cell that’s dealing with explosive hydrogen gas? And $10,000 seems pretty expensive for a mandatory rebuild. Remember, batteries don’t need to be replaced they just lose a little bit of capacity over time.

20,000 hours is only 2.28 years. That’s if it was running 24 hours a day. If it’s only running 12 hours a day it’s going to be 4.5 years. So much for that argument about costly batteries that need to be replaced! It seems like the fuel cell might actually have to be replaced more often than the latest battery technology.

I’d love to see how they fudged the math to make fuel cells look cheaper than battery electric, but I’m not buying it.

Why do we get cheap energy for FCEV and not BEV? Utilities make a killing charging crazy rates and have complete control. You have no control over a utility, and it can take years to strike a single contract for reduced utility rates, hence why BEV’s will be more expensive to run than most h2. A perfect example is the Tesla superchargers. They charge about $.26 per kWh. If they could get it to $.07, I guarantee they would. Why? They would sell the hell out of more cars making it cheaper to own than ICE. They have zero reason to charge $.26 per kWh other than they can’t get it cheaper. Utilities own the rates and don’t care what Tesla or anyone else thinks or wants. You can’t go up against the utilities, most are government entities and it takes years to force them to do anything. Now imagine fighting hundreds of utilities at once for a couple contracts.

LinkedIn

Again, Tesla is guaranteeing a 7¢ / kWh wholesale rate for Tesla Semi Megachargers. Both electrolysis and electric vehicle charging need electricity. Electrolysis actually needs more electricity to move a truck the same distance. Claiming that fuel cell trucks can somehow get electricity cheaper than battery electric trucks is a total load of bullshit. Anywhere there’s cheap electricity, you can charge an electric truck with it directly right there, at the same spot your hydrogen station would be.

Tesla Superchargers don’t charge 26¢ / kWh because that’s what their cost of electricity is. Mixing up price and cost is disingenuous. Price is what you pay, and cost is what Tesla pays.

Trevor claims “If they could get it to $.07, I guarantee they would. Why? They would sell the hell out of more cars making it cheaper to own than ICE”. What he misses is that Tesla owners don’t charge at Superchargers daily, so the cost of supercharging is irrelevant to the cost of ownership. Teslas are already cheaper to own than ICE, and most people pay 6¢ – 12¢ per kWh to charge their cars at home.

So why do Superchargers cost 2x – 4x as much as charging at home? To encourage people to charge at home. Superchargers are fast chargers that are designed to help cars make long road trips where they need to recharge fast to make it to their destination. It’s critical that Supercharger stalls are available to Tesla drivers who need them, and not people who could be slow charging at home or work.

Part of the way you do that is to make sure Superchargers are only used by people who really need them, and charging higher prices is a good way to do that. Tesla adds in a small profit margin for themselves, and uses congestion pricing at different times of the day to help keep supercharging stalls open. Claiming this is related to electricity costs is totally dishonest. In many cases, Tesla is able to get electricity for free or at a very low cost in exchange for bringing valuable high-income-earner traffic into malls and shopping plazas worldwide. With Tesla expanding solar and battery production in house, their cost for electricity will be extremely low long term. Tesla is becoming the world’s biggest utility. How do you expect to get electricity prices that are better than theirs?

Make no mistake about it: Tesla Semi will have a guaranteed low rate for renewable energy, 7¢ / kWh or less. Trying to say you’re cheaper because Megacharger rates are 4x more expensive than previously stated is just complete bullshit. Producing hydrogen through electrolysis uses more electricity than charging an EV.

I don’t know why you would fight 100 utilities for two contracts, but it sounds like Trevor will have to do just that when he sets up hydrogen production factories all around the country.

How is h2 more cost competitive than BEV? Isn’t it less efficient? Isn’t it a fool cell like Elon says?

LinkedIn

Yes?

The answer is simple; Nikola uses energy transmitted on the federal transmission lines before we enter the utility. We buy this clean energy directly from Wind, Solar and Hydro facilities directly. This allows us to get sub $.04 per kWh 20-year agreements on the freeways. You can’t do that within the city at hundreds of locations for BEV.

LinkedIn

Okay, so you’ve secured electricity at 4¢ a kWh. Guess what, you can use that to charge a Tesla Semi directly. That brings the cost of traveling 500 miles fully loaded at highway speeds on the Tesla Semi to just $40.

Using the same 4¢ / kWh pricing, Trevor says a Nikola truck would cost $240 to refill. That’s 6 times more expensive than the Tesla Semi.

As for being a fool? Well, I suppose you should be powering rockets with batteries if you believe that. No one size ever fits every application and in this situation, FCEV is cheaper than BEV for long haul trucking.

LinkedIn

For leaving the Earth’s gravity, battery technology isn’t good enough yet (and Elon says it never will be). But for trucking, it can 100% be done. Cute joke, but this isn’t rocket science Trevor.

So why can’t BEV work on freeways? Weight, charge time and Battery Degradation are the main reasons why. One of the main issues with BEV is that it weighs 10,000 lbs. more than FCEV. In the trucking world, every pound is worth about $.50 additional revenue, so you “Could” lose up to $5,000 per load by going BEV instead of FCEV on freeways. Next point, Battery Degradation. The faster you charge your batteries, the quicker the batteries degrade. Battery degradation alone can cut your BEV truck range in half which is a non-starter in the trucking world. Drivers can not sit idle charing for hours at a time.

LinkedIn

Here Trevor goes into the negatives about batteries –– but hydrogen fuel cells have big batteries too. Your typical hydrogen fuel cell vehicle will have a battery anywhere from 250 kWh – 750 kWh. All the hydrogen fuel cell does is charge the battery by burning hydrogen. Then the battery powers the vehicle exactly like it would in a pure battery electric truck. Why so much battery capacity is needed I don’t know, but that’s what Trevor said in an interview (I’m too lazy to figure out where, but tell me if you find it and I’ll drop it in).

If batteries really have serious problems –– weight, and degradation –– those apply to fuel cell vehicles just like pure battery electric trucks. The truth is these shortcomings aren’t the showstoppers Milton is making them out to be.

All technologies have their pros and cons, and that includes hydrogen too. With Nikola’s hydrogen fuel cell trucks, the car can only travel one route –– the route where a station is available and pre-built, ready for that truck.

How much money do you lose with a truck that can only drive on one road? How much money do you lose if there’s a shortage of hydrogen and you can’t fill up? These problems are ignored while Milton yet again exaggerates charging times as “a few hours”. No EV takes hours to charge at a fast charger –– Tesla Semi adds 400 miles in under 30 minutes. Since truck drivers have to stop to rest every 8 hours by law, they don’t need to spend any time waiting to charge.

Using Tesla’s car numbers right now, every 400k-600k you would have to replace a $120,000 battery and $120,000 grid storage battery.

LinkedIn

This is incorrect. Battery lifespan is not measured in miles, it’s measured in cycles. Current Tesla batteries can do around 1,500 – 2,000 cycles. That’s at least 300k miles for a 200 mile battery, 450k miles for a 300 mile battery, and 600k miles for a 400 mile battery.

With a 500 mile Semi, the old 1,500 cycle battery tech would be good for well over 750,000 miles. That’s with the old tech, that’s been in Model 3 for years! With 4,500 cycles or more on the new tech, degradation costs less than 3.5 cents a mile.

This means you would take a ¼ million dollar hit every 400K miles owning the BEV vs H2. Even with a million-mile battery, the economics of BEV still don’t compete with FCEV. Suddenly, people can see why @nikolamotor is the leader – we offer FCEV where it makes sense and BEV where it makes sense. Both have their place and always will.

LinkedIn

More like an $50,000 hit every 2 million miles –– completely manageable.

Trevor, don’t kid yourself. The only thing Nikola is a leader in is vaporware.

Hydrogen vehicles have failed. There is no successful hydrogen product. The Toyota Mirai ruined many peoples lives when hydrogen shortages inevitably hit:

Making hydrogen popular in trucking is a serious challenge, but Trevor is all talk and no action. I’m not sure there’s any place for hydrogen vehicles, and I’m not sure Nikola will ever be able to bring one to market. Remember, when Nikola ships their first fuel cell vehicle in 2023 they’ll be competing against 2023 battery tech. Not 2018 battery tech.

This is the problem with Trevor Milton’s blog post in a nutshell. Batteries keep getting better and better. Maybe when Nikola started the company, there was a case for hydrogen. But there isn’t today, and in four years there definitely won’t be.

If Nikola pursues the dead end of hydrogen fuel cell technology –– including a costly hydrogen network build out –– the company seems likely to fail. Worse yet, by throwing shade at batteries and telling everyone they can’t get the job done to pump up his hydrogen truck business, Trevor Milton is setting electrification back. These misconceptions will take time to clear up. Certain uneducated people will put off buying a great battery electric semi, waiting for a hydrogen fool cell truck that may never come. That’s a shame.

Sooner or later Nikola will shut down the hydrogen side of the business and focus on battery electric trucks. With the way battery technology is advancing, they’ll have to do it to survive. The only question is how much money they’ll burn on this hydrogen folly before realizing they’ve lit investors cash on fire.

To build out 800 hydrogen stations at a cost of $20 million each would cost at least $16 billion. Yes, with a B. Will Nikola’s new CEO and board let the company make this mistake? Investors in Nikola’s soaring stock will soon find out.

Read the full post on LinkedIn

3 thoughts on “Trevor Milton Defends Nikola Hydrogen Trucks

Leave a Reply to Kaweesi Robert Cancel reply