The hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicle is like the old school comedian Rodney Dangerfield — it gets no respect in a world where battery electric cars and buses are the darlings of the zero-emission vehicle world.
Hydrogen powered buses, specifically, may have a role answering the battery range problem that electric buses and cars continue have. Battery buses run fewer miles between charges.
Experts and transit officials said hydrogen fuel cell buses could be used on longer distance bus routes, while electrics could be deployed on shorter routes in cities where air pollution is the worst.
Currently the number of hydrogen fuel cell buses nationwide is small and in the “dozens”, said T.J. Doyle, an American Public Transit Association spokesman. Of the 2,790 zero emissions buses on the road in the U.S. in 2020, only 87 were hydrogen fuel cell buses, the remaining 2,703 are battery electric buses, said a joint Federal Transit Administration and California report.
“APTA members are looking at (hydrogen) fuel cell buses to provide zero emission service on some of their very long routes, and some are using them in cold weather environments since battery buses do experience loss of range in cold weather,” Doyle said.
Fuel cell electric buses also can be refueled quickly, using infrastructure similar to compressed natural gas buses, he said.
Regionally, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority is the first agency to test hydrogen fuel cell buses after being awarded an $8 million grant in November to buy two New Flyer hydrogen fuel cell powered buses and to outfit the Gun Hill Road bus garage in the Bronx with hydrogen fueling equipment. Those buses will be tested until the end of 2024.
While NJ Transit is in the midst of testing its first battery electric bus, the agency has researched hydrogen bus use by other transit agencies around the world, said Jim Smith, a spokesman.
“After discussions with our peers nationally and internationally, our impression is that fuel cell electric buses are typically deployed to address longer distance routes,” Smith said.
Hydrogen fueled buses have a range of up to 300 miles per tank, according to the MTA. By comparison, battery electric buses would run an “expected” average of 140 miles between charges and a maximum of 240 to 260 miles, NJ Transit officials said in 2021.
Battery range drops further in cold weather and when electric heating systems are used, NJ Transit officials said.
The Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District in Illinois replaced 20-year old diesel buses with two hydrogen powered buses in 2021 and has its own hydrogen fuel production station powered by solar energy to turn water into hydrogen, MTD officials said. It can fuel 12 to 15 hydrogen buses. Plans call for hydrogen buses to make up 70% of the bus fleet by 2040.
How do hydrogen buses work?
“It’s not a combustion process. It’s an electrochemical process. You take hydrogen, you put it into a fuel cell, and it is converted into electricity. The byproduct is water vapor,” said Eric D. Larson, a senior research engineer at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, a Princeton University research institute.
The chemical process, similar to how a car battery works, is a continuous process, he said. “Electricity drives motors that turn the wheels, basically,” Larson said. Like battery electrics, hydrogen buses have no harmful exhaust emissions, making them a solution to use in environmental justice communities overburdened with respiratory illnesses due to pollution from diesel exhaust, he said.
Only eight states have bought and deployed hydrogen fuel cell buses, the highest number in California at 52 and Ohio which has 24, according to a May 2021 Hydrogen bus trends and analysis report by ReGlobal.
A significant hurdle is the average $1.2 million for a hydrogen fuel cell bus compared to $750,000 for a battery electric bus, that report said. That and availability of fueling facilities has slowed wider spread use and testing of the buses, the report said.
Hydrogen fuel cell technology is still pretty expensive at this point, Larson said.
“It does work well. But it’s more expensive certainly than a diesel bus,” Larson said. “It’s kind of tied into the cost, but the other factor is just the availability of hydrogen as a fuel.”
Transit agencies have to consider multiple factors about using hydrogen fuel cell buses, Smith said.
They include the availability of green hydrogen sources, transporting it, infrastructure upgrades to bus garages, safety, operational issues, operating and the lifecycle cost of ownership, as well as environmental performance, he said. Suitability of the technology to address routes that other zero emission bus systems cannot currently sustain is also being evaluated, he said.
“This is a potential role for fuel cell buses in a future where NJ Transit is fully zero emission,” Smith said.
The latest transit agency NJ Transit officials visited has been Madrid, which is investing in major infrastructure upgrades to expand its existing battery electric bus fleet and is building hydrogen fuel cell bus infrastructure, Smith said. “The costs of operations, maturity of technology and the availability of hydrogen production were the main concerns that were learned in that visit,” he said.
Funding that cost means the state has to answer the ongoing issue of a dedicated funding source for NJ Transit operations so the agency can end a long practice of using capital funds that could purchase hydrogen buses and fueling stations, said Doug O’Malley, executive director of Environment New Jersey. This year NJ Transit used $360 million from its fiscal year 2023 capital budget for operating costs.
“The key thing is before we focus on hydrogen, we need to make sure that there’s funding in place to ensure that we are hitting the electrification mandates in the governor’s 2020 EV (electric vehicle) law,” he said.
While electric vehicles will require beefing up the grid to handle charging, in general, the electrical infrastructure is already there, Larson said. Hydrogen powered vehicles use fueling stations that store hydrogen at high pressure.
“The challenge of refueling is a little bit harder for hydrogen, in that you have to build new infrastructure essentially to have the fueling available,” Larson said.
In a state infamous for the Hindenburg disaster where a hydrogen filled blimp landing at Lakehurst caught fire and burned in minutes, safety is also an issue, added Larson.
“All the proponents of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are very well aware (of it),” he said. “A lot of the effort that goes into developing hydrogen fuel systems has to do with the safety of the whole system, and especially the storage tanks that handle high pressure hydrogen.”
Hydrogen fuel cell buses typically have rooftop storage tanks for this reason.
“Hydrogen is lighter than air. If there happens to be a leak, or a rupture in one of the tanks, the hydrogen will go up rather than come down,” Larson said. “If it does catch fire, the flame (and) the hydrogen is traveling upwards, so that reduces the risk to anybody who’s on the bus.”
Source : NJ