Energy Minister Megan Woods made no attempt to conceal her buoyant, almost defiant mood as she clambered down from the cab of New Zealand’s first operational hydrogen truck, a Hyundai XCIENT Fuel Cell.

Her ride round the streets of Auckland’s Highbrook industrial estate lasted only a few minutes but it was the culmination of a journey that started four years ago.

Woods had earlier told the crowd in the forecourt of NZ Post’s Highbrook operations centre that her faith in hydrogen as a fuel for heavy vehicles was about to be vindicated.

“I remember when I first became Minister of Energy there were some in our media that called me slightly obsessed with hydrogen and that it was a far-off sci fi concept, just a pretty strategy. There can be nothing more rewarding than standing in front of New Zealand’s first hydrogen truck. I am more than willing to say haere mai, kia ora and hello, it is wonderful to have you in our country.”

Woods seemed keen to ram home the point to anybody doubting the significance of the gleaming Hyundai XCIENT Fuel Cell now parked behind her.

“It is real. It’s going to be driving on our roads. It is not a plan, strategy, or a concept. This is climate action.”

The fact that the truck is here is due mainly to two things. The Government’s $500,000 grant to Hyundai New Zealand to import five fuel cell trucks, and the locally owned company’s close relationship with its parent, Hyundai Motors Company in Korea.

Hyundai’s Vice President and Head of Commercial Vehicle Global New Business Development, Seung Min Lee, flew in for the handover and Woods noted that this year marked the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations with South Korea.

New Zealand is the third market in the world, after Korea and Switzerland, to get its hands on the XCIENT. The Swiss have led the way introducing the first XCIENT to its roads in 2020 and now have 25 companies operating 47 of the vehicles.

Germany and The Netherlands are likely to be the next major markets to embrace hydrogen fuel cell trucks, but New Zealand has a chance to get in front of the pack.

“The whole purpose of this fund is to bring forward projects that are going to be demonstration, that are really early, and they need Government support to do it… It wouldn’t have happened if there wasn’t that fund sitting there,” said Woods.

“We need to know how hydrogen is going to perform in the New Zealand context…. What the operational costs of running one of these trucks is. How long do the tyres last? How long do the brakes last?

While it may not qualify as obsessive, Woods’ familiarity with the details of the trial about to be undertaken by NZ Post is indicative of the Government’s focus on hydrogen in reducing heavy transport’s high carbon emissions.

Labour has committed to reducing transport emissions by 35 percent by 2035. Heavy vehicles are responsible for 25 percent of total transport emissions so making an impact in this area will be key to achieving the target.

If the NZ Post trial is successful, hydrogen powered trucks could provide a relatively quick pathway to lower the emissions of its heavy transport fleet.

“We are a basic believer in green hydrogen as a fuel.” Post’s Sustainability Manager Dawn Baggaley told Newsroom.

“It appeals because our trucks don’t have a lot of down time (refuelling with hydrogen takes a similar time to diesel).NZ Post has already made significant investments in EVs for last mile delivery, but Baggaley says hydrogen fuel cell trucks can a play a significant role in long haul parcel movement.”

“Ninety-seven percent of our carbon footprint is fuel burn and 25 percent of that comes from heavy freight.

“We think the price of hydrogen trucks and hydrogen fuel will start coming down in 2025/26 which will make it a lot more economically attractive.”

NZ Post CEO David Walsh gave an indication of the XCIENT’s potential to cut the company’s emissions.

“This truck will take over from one of our heavy-laden emission diesel trucks saving around 170 tonnes of CO2 a year and that’s the equivalent of 100 normal vehicles. After testing the truck in August, we will hand it over to one of our valued contractors.”

Baggaley thinks it will take six months of operating the XCIENT Fuel Cell to collect enough data to analyse the trucks’ overall performance.

“The trial will be around Auckland to see if it is working well. Then the Auckland – Waikato run and Auckland to Whangarei.

“We need to operate the vehicle in all weather conditions, see what it does in the real world and then we need to look at the total cost of ownership.”

Initially, the trial is confined to in and around Auckland because the Government-supported refuelling infrastructure being built by Hiringa Energy is behind schedule. NZ Post’s truck will be refuelled in Auckland with green hydrogen produced by BOC at its Glenbrook plant.

Hiringa and its partner in the project, Waitomo, have broken ground on a commercial refuelling site in Palmerston North but it and other plants that were expected to open in South Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga by last month have been delayed due to supply chain problems.

The first station in the nationwide network (100 stations by 2030) is now expected to be online in early 2023.

Woods downplayed the impact of the delay saying it gave the country time to balance the demand side of the hydrogen equation.

“There is no point rolling out a refuelling network if there aren’t vehicles to use it. Build it and they will come is not the way to do it…. We need to be strategic and work in partnership with business.”

Hyundai NZ’s CEO says there is strong interest from other heavy transport operators following NZ Post’s lead in trialling hydrogen as a zero-emission alternative to diesel trucks.

“Heavy transport emissions are notoriously hard to offset, as electric battery vehicle alternatives can’t offer companies the same productivity. Larger trucks are driven all day, every day over long distances. Taking multiple hours out to recharge a battery regularly is time the truck can’t be on the road. Hydrogen technology is an important solution for New Zealand.”

Sinclair says the XCIENT’s performance in Switzerland gives him confidence that the local trials here will be successful.

“We have learnt that they are reliable, and they have accumulated over 4 million kilometres. Although our topography is similar to Switzerland’s  it is not exactly the same so there will be many things we will learn in New Zealand and that is good for everyone.”

Hyundai is a foundation partner of Newsroom 

Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom.

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