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San Francisco clean-energy startup aims for hydrogen breakthrough for trucking

By John Woolfolk, The Mercury News
Published: June 4, 2023, 6:00am

California has long been in the vanguard of pursuing renewable energy, and Gov. Gavin Newsom has budgeted billions of dollars for supporting and accelerating the state’s transition toward clean energy.

San Francisco company Verne is looking to tap into that with technology that will help move heavy duty transportation away from polluting diesel and gasoline power. We spoke with co-founder Ted McKlveen about what they’re up to.

Q: How did you and co-founders Bav Roy and David Jaramillo come together to found Verne?

A: I met David in college and Bav in business school. We are all passionate about addressing climate change, and excited about the potential to reduce emissions in transportation with hydrogen. We make a great team, bringing complementary skills. David received his PhD from UC-Berkeley and leads our tech innovation, Bav has an engineering background and an MBA and leads operations, and I previously had a strategy role at a renewable energy start-up and lead our sales and partnerships.

Q: What led you to pursue clean energy technology for heavy-duty transportation as opposed to say, consumer vehicles?

A: We wanted to solve a “difficult-to-decarbonize” problem. We wanted to address a sector that doesn’t currently have a good alternative to fossil fuels. Passenger vehicles have a solution: battery electric vehicles work well, are economical, and are gaining traction. Heavy-duty transportation is a whole different story. These vehicles need to carry very heavy payloads, travel long ranges, and refuel quickly to get back on the road. While battery electric trucks will work for some applications, many trucks will need a new technology to become fully zero-emission.

Q: You’ve received backing from Stanford, CalTech and MIT, as well as Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Network and Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund, and were featured in Forbes’ “30 under 30.” How did Verne generate so much buzz for a young company in such a niche field?

A: Heavy-duty transportation might seem niche, but transportation is the largest source of emissions in the United States, responsible for more greenhouse gases than electricity generation. These institutions know what a big problem transportation is as we collectively strive to get to net-zero emissions and have been incredibly supportive of our efforts to make an impact.

Q: What is the benefit of hydrogen power for heavy transportation?

A: Electric batteries required to power a semi-truck for 500 miles would weigh over 10,000 pounds and cost over $150,000. The battery weight significantly cuts into the freight that the truck operator can haul with big impacts on economics and profitability. Hydrogen is a very light gas, much lighter than batteries. For the same 500-mile range, a hydrogen system could be ~1/4 the weight, similar to the weight of a current diesel system. Hydrogen trucks can also be built to travel diesel-equivalent ranges of 1,000 miles or more before needing to refuel.

The major truck manufacturers, including Freightliner, Peterbilt, Volvo, Kenworth, and more, are all beginning to develop hydrogen trucks. Battery electric is a more advanced technology today in general, but the future of trucking will include a lot of hydrogen.

Q: How accessible is hydrogen?

A: One advantage is on the refueling side. Hydrogen can be delivered to stations, just as diesel fuel is today. Compare this to battery charging, which requires connection to the grid.

Converting a single truck stop to battery charging would require more electric power than a small town, the same electricity as six professional sports stadiums. With hydrogen, you can deliver the fuel to the station by truck or pipeline. Second, hydrogen vehicles can be refueled in the same amount of time as a standard diesel vehicle. This means the trucks can get back out on the road to continue their service.

Q: Wasn’t hydrogen used to make bombs? Is it safe?

A: Hydrogen has been used safely in a number of industries for decades. Like any fuel, it requires the proper engineering and handling. Any fuel will burn: diesel and gasoline also burn when ignited. The high energy content is what makes them good fuels. Hydrogen has different properties, which requires specific engineering for safe operations.

Q: Verne is developing low cost, high-density, lightweight hydrogen storage systems for use on trucks. What is that and what benefits does it offer?

A: We make hydrogen fuel tanks that can store twice as much hydrogen as the tanks that are available today by storing hydrogen as a cold, compressed gas. Current hydrogen trucks store hydrogen as a compressed gas, but by also chilling the hydrogen, we can get twice as much hydrogen into the same tank space.

Q: Gov. Newsom said California last month applied for federal funding to become a National Hydrogen Hub. If granted, how might Verne potentially fit into that effort?

A: The idea of hydrogen hubs is to aggregate hydrogen supply and hydrogen demand. Having more hydrogen produced and available here in California would certainly help stimulate the growth of the hydrogen-powered truck market. The federal funding would also bring down the cost of the hydrogen, making it easier for fleets to transition to a zero-emission hydrogen vehicle. Verne would ride this wave, providing higher-performance vehicles to fleets here in California, and further enhance their economics through our high-performance hydrogen storage systems.

Q: When does Verne expect to bring products to market?

A: We’ll have a semi-truck operating with our technology next year. Truck fleets are already lining up to try it out. After these initial trials, we’ll transition to multi-truck pilots in the next couple years, before full-scale manufacturing.

Q: If Verne’s products work in the trucking sector, what lies ahead for the company — ships, trains, planes?

A: The trucking market is massive, with millions of heavy-duty trucks on the road in the U.S. alone, so we’d be kept busy just focused on that. But our technology could also provide value in other sectors: off-road vehicles, such as mining trucks, as well as certain types of ships and planes. Our mission is to reduce carbon emissions, so we want to help as many of these heavy-duty sectors transition to zero-emission operations as possible.

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Q: There’s been a lot of gloom and doom talk around the climate issue, do you think it can be effectively and economically dealt with in coming years?

A: We have a lot of the technologies we need to make a big impact on emissions and need to accelerate deployment: think solar, wind, and battery electric vehicles. We need more of all them on the market. Many new technologies are being developed rapidly as well, from geothermal to new fertilizer to capturing CO2 from the air.

But we need to move even faster. We’re already seeing the impacts of climate change here in our California backyard, with all the extreme weather: wildfires, droughts, floods. We can solve this, but it won’t happen on its own.

Ted McKlveen

  • Position: CEO and Co-founder at Verne
  • Age: 30
  • Birthplace: Minneapolis
  • Residence: San Francisco
  • Education: Bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Harvard University, MBA from Stanford University
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