Thousand Palms, California's SunLine Transit Agency has spent more than two decades pioneering clean transit technology. The agency was an early adopter of hydrogen — installing its first on‐site hydrogen fueling infrastructure in 2000 — and has been fueling buses with compressed natural gas (CNG) for the last 25 years.
“Zero‐emission technology has been a big focus for us for a long time,” says Lauren Skiver, GM/CEO of SunLine. “We've been producing hydrogen for more than 20 years, and pretty soon, we'll have over three tons of hydrogen on our property. It will not only fuel our fleet currently and as we expand, but it will also be a revenue source for us as we sell hydrogen to the open market, both to consumers at our station and also to larger volume off takers.”
With a long history in producing and dispensing alternative fuels, Skiver says she and her team are positioning their “small, but mighty” transit fleet for long‐term sustainable success as it moves toward compliance with California’s zero‐emission standards.
Setting the Foundation
Operating a fleet of about 80 fixed‐route buses, including 59 CNG buses, 17 hydrogen-electric fuel-cell buses, and four battery‐electric buses, Skiver says SunLine’s main focus is having a “technology-agnostic approach” to its zero‐emission fleet.
In July 2020, SunLine approved its Zero‐Emissions Bus Rollout Plan outlining how the agency would convert all its vehicles to zero‐emission technology by 2035 — five years ahead of the California Air Resources Board’s (CARB) Innovative Clean Transit (ICT) regulation. The regulation currently requires all public transit agencies in the state to gradually transition to a fully zero-emissions bus (ZEB) fleet by 2040.
“We have about 10 more hydrogen-electric fuel-cell buses coming later this year or next, so we’ll have a total of 27 in our fleet,” she says. “Additionally, almost all of our relief vehicles have been transitioned to battery‐electric for shop trucks and some of our other support vehicles that are here on the property.”
In terms of infrastructure, SunLine recently completed the construction of a 900 kg/day hydrogen electrolyzer — the largest renewable hydrogen‐producing station in the country for transportation. Skiver says the creation of the system will help supply the agency with the infrastructure needed to maintain and grow a fleet that is on track with its current ZEB rollout plan.
That plan will also mean a pivot from CNG.
According to Skiver, SunLine’s latest CNG buses, which were purchased about two or three years ago, will dictate the year in which the agency’s fleet will fully transition to zero emission. The lifespan of those CNG buses, she adds, is about 12 to 14 years.
“That's an important factor in our planning,” Skiver says. “We have to factor in how we keep some of the CNG buses on the road long enough to build time as we either win grants or have funding available for new buses that are zero emission.”
With a strong vision and plan for the fleet, Skiver says she hopes that acquiring new funding resources won’t be too hard as more options become available.
In 2019, the agency was the first in California to request and receive support from CARB’s HVIP (Hybrid and Zero Emission Truck and Bus Voucher Incentive Project) for a hydrogen fuel-cell bus. Thanks to that funding and other revenue support down the line, Skiver says SunLine has been able to allocate funding that would have otherwise been used for ZEB adoptions and technology to other key transit projects, like the creation of a new operations facility and the start of SunLine’s latest network redesign plan.
New Plans, New Service
At the beginning of the year, the agency took a bold approach in launching its SunLine Refueled initiative — a multi‐tiered plan outlining new services and improvements for the transit agency — amid the COVID‐19 pandemic.
Three years in the making, the plan was ultimately born out of taking the agency’s 15 fixed-routes and boiling them down to nine, more effective routes across its 1,120 square mile service area.
“We knew we needed to relook at what corridors were actually serving our riders and how we could increase frequency,” Skiver says. “Three years ago, we still had many of our routes running at one hour to one‐and‐a‐half‐hour frequencies, which heavily affected our customer satisfaction.”
Consolidating the fixed‐route system was the first of four pillars SunLine launched as part of its Refueled initiative. The other three include: a microtransit service known as SunRide; the 10 Commuter Link, a regional service that goes from Indio in the eastern Coachella Valley to San Bernadino; and Route 1X, an express service that runs along one of the agency’s major corridors, Highway 111.
“I think what's key is that we took the dread of COVID, and we used it as a silver lining,” Skiver explains. “Instead of taking years to redesign the system, we basically redesigned it in a matter of months and then launched the entire new network within a day.”
Working on the plan during COVID provided two major benefits for the agency. The first, Skiver says, was since ridership was extremely low during this time, it made it easier to reconfigure the entire system at once. Second, she says, it provided a positive project for the entire team to work on, giving a boost to morale and collaboration.
“During a lot of that planning [for SunLine Refueled], we used our bus operators as part of our compass and guideposts because they know how to deliver the service, they see it every day, and they know our customers,” she says. “This gave the planning team, which consisted of about four of our staff members, the confidence they needed to deliver the plan without a hitch.”
Further COVID Impacts
Aside from being the driving force behind implementing SunLine Refueled, Skiver says the impact COVID has had on ridership continues to be a challenge for the small agency, which usually transports about 4.5 million passengers per year.
“Now, we’re hovering around that 50% to 60% mark of our ridership,” she says. “This is also the dog days of summer in the Coachella Valley, and usually we have a natural reduction in ridership in the summer as temperatures reach over 100 degrees.”
Above all, though, Skiver says SunLine has used the hardships of COVID to forge stronger community connections.
Early on during the pandemic, the agency conducted several health and wellness events with bus operators and members of the larger Coachella Valley community.
“We were always handing things out to those on the frontline, including our operators, showing them that we supported them and appreciated what they do every day,” Skiver says. “Sometimes it was just as simple as handing out water or a pack of snacks. It was the little things that counted most.”
To show further appreciation and encouragement, SunLine also launched its #CoachellaValleyStrong campaign in April 2020, which featured two new bus wraps showcasing messages like “Together We Are Stronger” on the sides of the buses, and “Thank You to All Those Who Have Kept Us Moving” on the back as a tribute to essential workers.
“Little things like that were big morale boosters, and they still are, even now as some of California’s COVID restrictions are back in place,” she explains. “Our operators love driving those two buses, because they are like rolling banners that say thank you to everyone on the frontlines.”
As SunLine looks to further transform its services and commitment to sustainability, Skiver says the agency is working on rolling out several new projects.
More recently, in April, SunLine announced a partnership with Southern California Gas Co. (SoCal Gas) for a three-year demonstration research project that seeks to use new technologies to produce hydrogen for fuel-cell vehicles from renewable natural gas (RNG). The research project, called “H2 SilverSTARS,” will produce hydrogen at SunLine’s on-site fueling station in Thousand Palms, with the goal of producing the fuel at prices competitive with gasoline.
In addition to that, SunLine is planning to create a Hydrogen/Electricity Truck Plaza, where truck operators in the area can fuel and/or charge their vehicles using the agency’s infrastructure. By having operators purchase SunLine’s hydrogen and charging services, Skiver says the agency will be able to create additional streams of revenue, and thus, put more clean transit service on the road.
Another ambitious project on SunLine’s horizon is the construction of its West Coast Center of Excellence in Zero-Emission Technology (CoEZET), a training/trade school designed to educate transit agencies looking to establish or increase their zero-emission fleets and technologies.
“We’re building the school, which will be a physical location, along with portable training where technicians can learn how to operate and maintain fuel cell and/or battery-electric vehicles,” Skiver says.
As part of the project, which received nearly $2 million in funding from the Federal Transit Administration, SunLine will work with its partners to develop comprehensive curriculum and resources that addresses all aspects of in-service management for ZEBs. The facility is expected to be completed in 2022.