Hydrogen Fuel Cell Bus Info Page: The “Other” Electric Bus

As transit agencies across the country consider the options to decarbonize their fleets, hydrogen fuel cell electric buses (FCEBs) have emerged as a compelling option due to similar operational logistics and performance compared to incumbent technologies. This information sheet serves as a reference point for transit agency decision makers for further information on FCEBs and hydrogen infrastructure implementation.


Performance: Fuel Cell Electric Buses Operate the Same Way as Diesel & CNG Buses

Transit Agencies overall have had great experiences using fuel cell electric buses in their day-to-day operation. The National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) has published data on FCEB performance and maintenance over the past 10 years that can be found here, including the most recent Current Status 2020 report: https://www.nrel.gov/hydrogen/fuel-cell-bus-evaluation.html

The Midwest Hydrogen Center of Excellence, CTE and SARTA produced the following report: “An Analysis of the Association between Changes in Ambient Temperature, Fuel Economy, and Vehicle Range for Battery Electric and Fuel Cell Electric Buses.” In 2019, the same authors published the following: “Update of Investigation into Changes in Fuel Economy and Vehicle Range Related to Change in Ambient Temperature for Battery and Fuel Cell Electric Buses and Vehicle Range Related to Change in Ambient Temperature for Battery and Fuel Cell Electric Buses.”

Case Studies from Existing Transit Agencies Operating FCEBs

Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District (AC Transit)

AC Transit’s launched its first hydrogen fueling facility in November 2002, which serviced a single 30-foot fuel cell electric bus (FCEB). In fewer than four years, that sole FCEB had proven successful for the East Bay’s varied topography of hills and flatlands and robust rider demand and allowed the transit district to expand its FCEB to a fleet of three and simultaneously launch its first-generation FCEB pilot program. By 2010, AC Transit had expanded its zero emission fleet to 13 second-generation FCEBs, and in so doing emerged as a global leader in hydrogen fuel cell operations, including penning the industry’s first-ever technician’s manual for mechanical maintenance. AC Transit continued to advance its zero emission technologies by opening a second onsite fueling station in 2014. AC Transit has made such significant strides in FCEB mechanical maintenance that by 2017, its fuel cell power plants surpassed the Department of Energy (DOE) and Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) targets of 25,000 hours of operation. In continuing its tradition of “firsts,” AC Transit embarked on the transit industry’s first-ever Zero Emission Transit Bus Technology Analysis (ZETBTA), euphemistically known as the “5-by-5 Study” in 2019. The ZETBTA is a robust side-by-side evaluation of the predominant engine technologies in use at transit agencies worldwide: FCEB, battery electric bus (BEB), diesel hybrid, and conventional diesel bus propulsion systems. Currently, the ZETBTA is an evolving open-source study evaluated by Stanford University’s Precourt Institute for Energy: creating a scholarly reinforced roadmap to aid transit agencies in planning, procurement, training, and most importantly, a guide to curtailing costly missteps toward zero-emission conversions. For more information, visit: https://www.actransit.org/zeb

“AC Transit is unique, and I am proud to boast we are unprecedented in zero emission technologies,” says General Manager Michael Hursh. “We have now operated hydrogen fuel cells as well as battery electric buses for more than 20 years. Our diverse propulsion systems not only mean we’re helping to clean Bay Area air quality every day but through ‘boots on the ground’ ingenuity, our zero emission technicians revolutionized hydrogen fuel cell maintenance through the first-ever transplant of a hydrogen fuel cell stack. Our ZEB maintenance tech’s demonstrated that with an OEM parts kit, we can rehabilitate an FCEB at mid-life and extend the useful life expectancy, not to mention its performance. In fact, this historic achievement is just one of the advancements fueling our evolving in-house zero emission university.”

Orange County Transit Authority (OCTA)

In 2020, OCTA debuted a new hydrogen fueling station, the largest transit-operated hydrogen fueling station in the United States, and introduced 10 hydrogen fuel-cell electric buses. The $22.9 million program follows a pilot program in which OCTA became the first large public transportation agency in Southern California to operate a hydrogen fuel-cell electric bus. As of today, OCTA has the largest hydrogen fueling station in nation for transportation with a hydrogen fuel capacity of 4,800 kilograms and a bus capacity of 40-50 buses, scalable to 100 FCEBs with additional fuel storage and components. For more information, visit: http://www.octa.net/Bus/Hydrogen-Fuel-Cell-Electric-Bus/Overview/

Stark Area Regional Transit Authority (SARTA)

SARTA is committed to utilizing clean fuel buses and looking towards the future of zero-emission transportation. In 2017 SARTA introduced a new alternative method of transportation; the Hydrogen Fuel Cell, to the riders of Stark County. SARTA is currently working towards putting 18 hydrogen fuel buses on the road.
SARTA’s Borrow-A-Bus Program: In October, 2018, SARTA CEO, Kirt Conrad, announced the implementation of a one-of-a-kind program that would allow any transit-dependent organization or transit agency the opportunity to borrow one of SARTA’s Zero-Emission Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Buses at no initial cost. For more information visit: https://www.sartaonline.com/sartas-borrow-a-bus-program

SunLine Transit Agency

Hear from Sunline Transit’s CEO/General Manager Lauren Skiver in this exposé on their fuel cell electric bus fleet deployment and onsite hydrogen production experience. More information on Sunline’s hydrogen FCEB fleet, including a #TransitTuesday Sunline ReFueled webinar recording, go to their Clean Fleet webpage.


Hydrogen Comes in a Variety of Ways

Each transit agency has different requirements and therefore will need to examine and determine the options for hydrogen supply and refueling station. Sometimes the best option is to produce hydrogen onsite, such as the case for Sunline Transit in the Coachella Valley, CA who has an abundance of land on a large property, by either electrolysis or small-scale reformation of natural gas or biogas. For other more urban transit agencies, such as Orange County Transit Authority (OCTA), delivered liquid hydrogen is the best option for a more space restrained infrastructure solution. The Center for Transportation and the Environment (CTE) produced the Guidebook for Deploying Zero-Emission Transit Buses, containing a thorough step-by-step guide for both battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell electric bus fleet implementation, which is available for download here: http://nap.edu/25842

Products Available Today

Fuel cell electric buses (FCEBs) are commercial and available for purchase today from New Flyer and El Dorado National.

On-site containerized hydrogen production systems are available today from Nel (electrolysis) and BayoTech (small-scale SMR).

In December 2019, funded by FTA, the Ohio Fuel Cell Coalition and Cleveland State University produced the following report on Fuel Cell Electric Buses: Market Development Review And Supply Chain Survey

Maintenance & Training

The West Coast Center of Excellence in Zero Emission Technology (CoEZET) is hosted by SunLine Transit Agency. This effort is for workforce investments, outreach, knowledge capture, workshops, and staffing support for these efforts. Funded by the FTA, the Center serves to bring education to transit agencies looking to establish or increase their zero-emission fleets and technologies. Instruction will cover topics that address in-service management of zero-emissions technologies, which includes fueling systems and fleet operations. CoEZET provides a place for focused training and instruction in conjunction with educational institutions and original equipment manufacturers. The Center has also been funded for a dedicated zero-emissions maintenance facility which will be used to demonstrate many of the diagnostic tools necessary to maintain zero-emission fleets. Additional information can be found on this brochure and here >>

TCO Price Comparison: At Scale, Hydrogen is Cheaper Than Electric

The price for electricity can vary widely throughout the day, while hydrogen pricing can be constant at a fixed price per kilogram contract with a supplier. In terms of an overall fleet bus and infrastructure price comparison, Foothill Transit performed an analysis on battery versus fuel cell electric buses over a 12-year period and determined a savings of $12.9 million by using FCEBs with hydrogen infrastructure covering a 23-bus block. The full evaluation can be found here: https://cafcp.org/sites/default/files/07-24-2020-Foothill-ZEB-Update-to-Board.pdf

In consideration of the high capital costs of zero-emission buses, CTE, The Midwest Hydrogen Center for Excellence and SARTA produced the following report: Procurement Strategies for Reducing Capital Costs of Zero-Emission Buses

Funding Sources

Public/private partnerships are available for hydrogen infrastructure financing. As for public incentives, in California, the Air Resources Board offers zero emission bus funding through HVIP (https://www.californiahvip.org/) and VW Mitigation fund (http://vwbusmoney.valleyair.org/). On the federal level, each year funding is available through the Federal Transit Administration’s Low-No Program (https://www.transit.dot.gov/funding/grants/lowno).

For more information on different zero emission bus inventive programs, visit CALSTART’s Clean Transit Innovation Network.

Resilience: Zero-Emission Emergency Back-Up Power from Fuel Cells

Hydrogen fuel cells are already used for back-up power in critical operations such as hospitals and data centers. Transit agencies also have this option to further utilize hydrogen for back-up power through stationary fuel cells. This allows further use of the readily available hydrogen fuel. Examples of fuel cells used for back-up power can be found this presentation entitled Fuel Cells for Resilience and Decarbonization in California. A fact sheet was created and can be found here with information on fuel cell generators available from different suppliers. Learn more here: http://www.casfcc.org/

California Air Resources Board Innovative Clean Transit Rollout Plans

The Innovative Clean Transit (ICT) regulation (Cal. Code Regs. Tit. 13 § 2023.1(d)) requires each transit agency to submit a complete Zero-Emission Bus Rollout Plan (Rollout Plan), approved by its governing body, to CARB showing how it plans to achieve a full transition to zero-emission buses (ZEBs). Rollout plans for large transit agencies were due in July, 2020; small transit agencies are due June 30th, 2024. Rollout plans are posted on the CARB website: https://ww2.arb.ca.gov/our-work/programs/innovative-clean-transit/ict-rollout-plans

Below is a graphical representation of the rollout plans complied by NREL.

FCEB Webinars and Videos

The Southern California Association of Governments, through their “Toolbox Tuesday” webinar series put on the following webinars on hydrogen including Hydrogen and Workforce Development.

The CHBC and CTA partnered in 2019 to conduct a  4-part webinar series on hydrogen fuel cell electric buses:

The “Other” Electric Bus: Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Bus Info Sheet PDF available here >>