Hydrogen Fueled Fleets Help California Meet Climate Goals

Across California, transit agencies are piloting hydrogen fuel cell technology in their fleets to ensure that the state reaches fast approaching zero-emissions goals (Part 1 of a Series)
By Arianna Smith
Managing Editor

Transit California

Hydrogen is a critical fuel source for California transit agencies to meet the state’s ambitious climate action goals of carbon neutrality by 2045 and a 48% reduction of greenhouse gasses by 2030. Across the state, transit agencies are investing in hydrogen buses, fueling stations, and even ferries. While challenges exist with this energy source – from cost, to conveyance, to infrastructure needs – agencies, along with key public and private sector partners, are getting creative to move toward a zero emissions future. This article is Part 1 of a series; the August 2023 issue of Transit California will feature California transit agencies’ efforts, challenges, and opportunities to meet zero emissions targets through fleet electrification.

Hydrogen use is currently limited across the nation, but the White House acknowledges hydrogen’s existing and future role in addressing climate change, stating in a July 2023 issue brief: “Clean hydrogen has the potential to play an important role in decarbonizing the U.S. economy by reducing emissions in some of the most difficult-to-decarbonize sectors, including . . . heavy-duty transportation. . . . There is a recognized need for expanded clean hydrogen capacity if the United States is to meet its net zero emissions goals.” 

To that end, the federal government is implementing the Hydrogen Shot as part of the American Jobs Plan to bring down existing barriers for hydrogen use, including a goal of reducing costs by 80%, to approximately $1 per kilogram by 2031. Currently, clean hydrogen costs on average $5 per kilogram in the US, which can hamper efforts by transit agencies and other industries to switch to clean hydrogen from cheaper fossil fuels. The Hydrogen Shot includes funding to establish demonstration Regional Clean Hydrogen Hubs (H2Hubs) for which states can apply. These H2Hubs which would “create networks of hydrogen producers, consumers, and local connective infrastructure to accelerate the use of hydrogen as a clean energy carrier that can deliver or store tremendous amounts of energy,” according to the Department of Energy’s Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations.

The location of these hubs has not yet been decided, but California’s Alliance of Renewable Clean Hydrogen Energy Systems (ARCHES) has submitted the application for the state to become one of up to ten proposed hubs.  ARCHES is a public-private partnership between state and local government agencies and energy industry entities. “California’s leadership, and early efforts on transitioning to 100% renewable, zero-carbon electricity, and developing H2 infrastructure makes the State well positioned to win a renewable clean H2Hub award . . . [we] will know more in coming months if ARCHES has been awarded federal funding,” said Angelina Galiveta, Chief Executive Officer of ARCHES, as well as the Founder of the Renewables 100 Policy Institute and Chair of the California Independent Systems Operator Board (CalISO).  She continued, “California’s application is unique from other hub applicants because of the approach to establishing innovative projects in major transit zones across California, helping to facilitate a greener transportation network thoroughfare throughout the state. This approach will allow for many projects to work simultaneously to achieve California’s climate goals, rather than one project site carrying the burden.”

Galiveta further explained how transit agencies, transit riders, and local neighborhoods are benefitting from the switch to hydrogen fleets: “Hydrogen fuel cell technology is playing a key role as transit agencies continue modernizing their fleets to meet California’s ambitious climate goals.”

For most transit agencies in the state, modernizing fleets with hydrogen power means switching from diesel or compressed natural gas (CNG) buses to hydrogen fuel cell buses (FCEB). “Similar to battery-electric buses (BEB), FCEB are zero emission, feature reduced noise and vibration compared to diesel powered buses, and keep the air in our communities cleaner,” said Galiveta.  Additionally, “FCEBs can also be refueled in as little as 8 minutes, meaning they can be back on the road sooner than their BEB cousins.”

The Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) is at the forefront of piloting FCEB, said OCTA spokesperson Megan Abba. “OCTA is currently piloting 10 hydrogen fuel-cell electric buses, which is approximately 2.5% of the agency’s fixed-route fleet. These buses were put into service in 2020 when OCTA also debuted the largest hydrogen fueling station for transit in the nation. Previously, in 2016, OCTA became the first large public transit agency in Southern California to operate a hydrogen fuel-cell electric bus in an initial pilot.”  

Although OCTA is still in the process of deciding on which type of zero-emission technology would best meet the needs of the region, Abba described some of the benefits that OCTA has seen with FCEB, including “longer operating ranges and quicker refueling than battery-electric buses, similar to the CNG buses. Also, hydrogen fueling stations can operate independently of the grid using backup generators due to their low electricity demand. Hydrogen fuel can also be competitively procured to get the lowest price possible, unlike electricity.” She noted that one of the ways OCTA is currently using FCEBs is by “strategically deploying its hydrogen fuel-cell electric buses on routes that travel through some of Orange County’s most disadvantaged communities, helping to provide even cleaner air for those residents.”

The Redding Area Bus Authority (RABA) and the Shasta Regional Transportation Agency (SRTA), which operate many long, rural routes, are currently evaluating hydrogen for similar reasons. “RABA selected hydrogen for various factors, including longer range vehicles for longer routes such as routes to Burney, Shasta Lake and Anderson, having another fuel source in case challenges with the electrical grid occurs and looking for a quick fueling alternative,” said John Andoh, RABA’s Transit General Manager.  He explained that RABA and SRTA are working together after SRTA received $9 million “to fund the development, acquisition, construction of a hydrogen station in Shasta County.  We are evaluating constructing the hydrogen station on RABA property and looking at a station that would have hydrogen trucked to us,” and went on to say that RABA anticipates having at least 10 hydrogen vehicles to serve riders.

SunLine Transit Agency of Riverside County is in the process of converting their entire fleet to FCEB. The agency was the first in the state to own and operate a hydrogen generation and dispensing station. It is also working to help others move toward hydrogen fleets, including other agencies, as well as commercial truck operators and passenger vehicle drivers.  According to SunLine’s clean fleet website, “[Our] future power station will power not only our own fleet of buses but also hydrogen trucks and other hydrogen vehicles along the I-10. By offering this power station in such an ideal location, SunLine is helping push vehicle manufacturers and purchasers into a greener future. We also offer a hydrogen training program to help other agencies achieve zero-emissions transportation through our West Coast Center of Excellence.”

While FCEB are the vast majority of hydrogen powered transit vehicles in California, the Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) has begun the transition to hydrogen for its San Francisco Bay Area’s ferry system. “We are excited to deploy MV Sea Change, the world’s first commercial passenger ferry powered 100% by hydrogen fuel cells, this summer. This is our first demonstration project using hydrogen,” said Executive Director Seamus Murphy. “Our operational fleet is currently entirely powered by renewable diesel, and we have won $100 million in grants to begin electrifying our fleet. However, current battery technology won’t allow us to provide high-capacity, high-speed ferry service on our longest routes. We think hydrogen is a potential solution there.”

Murphy explained that MV Sea Change is part of an effort to showcase hydrogen’s maritime uses beyond their own ferries: “The operational profile for hydrogen is similar to what the entire maritime industry is built around: liquid fueling from tanks. In addition, there’s a lot of energy around the development of hydrogen for maritime use, especially in the Bay Area where public and private partners are deploying infrastructure solutions to make hydrogen feasible for harbor craft including ferries. . . . We see hydrogen as potentially a longer-term solution for our routes of greater distance, ones where current battery technology would make the ferries too heavy to go the speeds we need.” 

While hydrogen fuel for transit fleets offers many advantages to agencies, riders, and surrounding communities, the technology is limited by cost, accessibility, and emissions concerns.

“[The] cost is not comparable to electricity or CNG,” said Abba of OCTA. “To be affordable and comparable to CNG, hydrogen would need to come down to $3 per kilogram, but it is currently three or four times that amount.” And it’s not just the cost of the fuel, but of the fleets themselves: “A zero-emission bus costs approximately double what a regular compressed natural gas bus costs, and the challenge will be to determine viable funding sources for future vehicle purchases.”

Currently limited availability and underdeveloped fueling infrastructure is also a concern for some agencies. “OCTA is currently facing issues with not having an alternate hydrogen fueling site in the event of a fueling station failure. OCTA operates its own hydrogen fueling station at one of its bus bases, but there are no other commercial hydrogen fueling stations nearby,” said Abba. “There are also issues with standardizing fuel nozzle and data communication connections, resulting in hydrogen fuel-cell electric buses not being able to refuel at a visiting station.”

Murphy of WETA said that the Bay Area faced similar infrastructure challenges. “Shoreside infrastructure will be a major barrier for all of our decarbonization efforts, including hydrogen. For regular operation, we need energy where our ferries dock, at the terminals or at our operations and maintenance facilities. Operating with multiple fuel sources and propulsion technologies complicates our infrastructure needs and operational processes. That’s something that remains front of mind as we think about our options.”

Ensuring that the hydrogen fuel is truly “clean” and zero-emissions can be a challenge unto itself. Rural transit agencies in particular report that their access to hydrogen fuel may depend on distribution by diesel powered trucks. Whether hydrogen fuel is “clean” can depend on whether it was made using renewable energy and extraction from water (electrolysis), or was extracted using fossil fuels and from fossil fuels like natural gas (methane reformation). “There’s an immense effort at the local, state and federal level to enhance availability of hydrogen, but there’s a long way to go,” said Murphy of WETA.

“Hydrogen fills a void that other alternative fuels cannot,” said Galiveta of ARCHES. It will clearly play a critical role for transit agencies working to meet California’s fast-approaching climate goals.

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