Green Report: Hydrogen Fuel Cells Gather Steam as Viable Fleet Option

Posted on March 18, 2013 by Alex Roman, Managing Editor

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ClearEdge Power, formerly UTC Power, donated Cleveland's fuel-cell bus.
ClearEdge Power, formerly UTC Power, donated Cleveland's fuel-cell bus.
Fuel conversion
In coordination with the NASA Glenn Research Center, Cleveland RTA launched its hydrogen bus project in January.

RTA worked with Sierra Lobo, a Glenn contractor, to install a hydrogen fueling station at its Hayden Garage in East Cleveland, where the bus is based. The garage already had fueling equipment for CNG, including 50 sensors to monitor the tanks.

“We were able to utilize those CNG tanks for hydrogen, and NASA’s contactor was able to convert the location into a hydrogen fueling station,” explains Mary Shaffer, the RTA’s media relations manager. “We were able to convert the hydrogen into fuel via electrolysis, with the only emission being vapor on site. It’s a big deal to have the fueling station right at our facility. It gives us more flexibility with the vehicle.”

The 40-foot bus has a capacity of 57 passengers and will be in service between six and eight hours daily on various RTA routes, says Shaffer.

“We were able to put the vehicle right out into regular service,” she says. “Our usual routes are three to four hours with a break in between, so it can usually go out for its first section of routes, and then, get fueled up and get back out for the afternoon.”

The hydrogen-fueled bus is on loan from ClearEdge with the electrolyzer on loan from NASA Glenn. The entire program, which includes the fueling system and bus, is valued at $3 million. RTA Board members approved a $50,000 investment in this project, which pays for the installation and use of fueling equipment.

“Overall, it’s important that this was something we were able to do inexpensively for taxpayers, but we really put a lot of human investment into this vehicle,” says Shaffer.

Similar to AC Transit, the length of RTA’s project is indefinite.

“We were looking at between three months and a year, which is what we’re able to do per federal guidelines. We’re seeing if maybe we can possibly extend that,” says Shaffer. “We feel we can supply some really interesting data for all the companies involved. And hopefully, there will be some positive things that will come from this project.”

Partnering for success
The demonstration projects in Austin, Cleveland and Oakland are the results of multiple partners working together to find success. Many times, transit agencies, such as Cleveland RTA, will find themselves working with partners they would have never imagined working with.

“It’s nice to have those different perspectives and to be able to say ‘hey, we are working with the people who launch rockets,’” says Shaffer of working with NASA on the Cleveland project. “We are really thinking about ways to be green, be good to the environment and learn from those folks who really have the expertise in fuel cells, while we share with our partners what we know from the transit business.”

For agencies looking to test hydrogen fuel-cell buses, or any new technology, finding the right partners is key, according to Capital Metro’s team.

“You have to find people that are dedicated to the project and have, if not the available resources, the available drive to make it happen,” says Murphy. “Having a dedicated team to manage a program like this is also key. CTE has lived up to every expectation in that regard.”

Each of the transit agencies involved report success testing the hydrogen fuel-cell buses, while being able to embark on their projects with little or no financial output, other than some slight infrastructure improvements — typically the installation of the hydrogen fueling station — and driver training.

“Everybody’s goal is to be greener, so it’s a really nice option to have at least one vehicle that truly provides zero emissions,” Shaffer says. “We are getting more visual comments than people acknowledging that we are green, but it’s important that we are testing hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. Hopefully, it will lead to these vehicles being an economical alternative for fleets.”

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