Management & Operations

AC Transit launches fuel-cell program

Posted on June 1, 2005

In 1999, officials at AC Transit in Oakland, Calif., caught a glimpse of the future — a $10 million hydrogen fuel-cell bus that was displayed at the APTA International Public Transportation Expo in Orlando, Fla. Intrigued by the vehicle, AC Transit asked its manufacturer to bring it to the Bay Area for testing. “We operated it up in the hills and on the freeway, and it was an amazing experience,” said Jaimie Levin, AC Transit’s marketing director. “It showed us the potential of hydrogen fuel-cell technology.” To AC Transit, the allure of the hydrogen fuel-cell bus, in addition to its performance, was its environmental impact, or, more accurately, its lack thereof. Not only was the bus impressive in its quietness, it also didn’t spew any pollutants into the atmosphere. With a service area that includes very liberal Berkeley, these were key considerations. “One of our goals has always been to provide the best possible service,” said Rick Fernandez, AC Transit’s general manager. “Providing a service that doesn’t pollute our neighborhoods is the next logical step.” To further its involvement with this alternative propulsion, AC Transit joined the California Fuel Cell Partnership in 2000 and continued testing fuel-cell buses, including a successful eight-month demonstration program with a 30-foot vehicle. Based on this experience, AC Transit launched “Taking the HyRoad,” a hydrogen fuel-cell program that includes four hybrid-electric fuel-cell buses (one of which will be operated by SunLine Transit in Thousand Palms, Calif.), two fueling stations and a small fleet of zero-emission cars. To finance the HyRoad program, the agency secured $20 million in grants from federal, state, regional and local agencies. Then, bringing together a team that included Van Hool, ABC Companies, UTC Fuel Cells and ISE Corp., it launched an initiative to create its own hydrogen fuel-cell bus. Because it had established a close working relationship with Van Hool (through ABC Companies), AC Transit chose to use Van Hool’s A330 as its base chassis and body. The agency and Van Hool worked closely to redesign the body and chassis to accommodate the different load factors and to incorporate changes to the approach and departure angles. “The Van Hool engineers are brilliant designers,” Levin said. Meanwhile, UTC contributed the fuel-cell system, and ISE Corp. designed the hybrid system and integrated the drive package. The product of this team effort will be displayed at this year’s APTA Expo in Dallas and then put into revenue service in late fall. AC Transit is expecting delivery of two more of these buses by early 2006. “The development of this environmentally friendly propulsion technology could help to solve one of the biggest challenges that faces the industry today,” said Dane Cornell, executive vice president of ABC Companies. “ABC is proud to have been involved in this achievement.” AC Transit is quick to point out that its bus is not merely a fuel-cell bus. “It is a hybrid-electric fuel-cell bus,” said Doug Byrne, program manager for the zero-emission buses. “Onboard batteries can store up to 95 kW of surplus power, captured through regenerative braking.” The buses, which cost approximately $3 million each, are expected to have 250- to 300-mile range and be capable of 65 mpg and climbing an 18% grade.

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