Hydrogen, the most abundant substance in the universe, will soon power some AC Transit buses, eliminating noisy, polluting diesel vehicles.
And today, the bus agency is scheduled to open a hydrogen fueling station in Richmond that will power the environmentally-friendly buses when they arrive in 2004.
In the meantime, the new fueling station, which is being plugged as the first in the Bay Area, will serve the handful of private and public hydrogen vehicles that are currently in operation. Stuart Energy and the California Fuel Cell Partnership are partners in the new station.
The three hydrogen buses that AC Transit plans to put in operation are being bought from a Belgian company and are powered by fuel cells designed by ISE Research-ThunderVolt, Inc. of San Diego and UTC Fuel Cells, based in Connecticut.
The buses come as part of a $14.9 million study that will compare the performance of hydrogen vehicles with diesel buses. More than $10 million for the study will come from the state.
The hydrogen buses, each worth about $3 million, will operate in a variety of settings including hilly areas, urban lines that carry more than 20,000 daily riders through densely populated neighborhoods, and the Transbay Express service to San Francisco, where speeds can reach 65 mph. Performance in all operating conditions will be evaluated.
Fuel cells are “revolutionary and evolutionary,” said Jaimie Levin, AC Transit’s director of marketing.
The cells combine hydrogen fuel with oxygen from the atmosphere to produce electricity, heat and water. Since the tailpipes of fuel cell buses emit only steam, they don’t pollute the air. And because fuel cells contain no moving parts, they operate silently.
“The fuel cell has clearly grounded potential in replacing the internal combustion engine,” said Levin. But, he said, “there are still many unknowns about durability and cost.” Among those unknowns are the long-term costs of hydrogen fuel as well as the cost of maintaining and repairing a fuel cell bus over its lifetime.
One of the challenges facing the introduction of the new technology, said project manager Doug Byrne, is overcoming the public’s concern about hydrogen as a fuel.
“The first thing people associate with hydrogen are bombs or the Hindenberg,.. There’s a widespread belief that hydrogen is dangerous.” Byrne said. “But with fuel cells there is no burning or ignition of hydrogen.”
A more technical challenge for fuel cell buses is matching the standards of diesel buses. “In terms of cost and performance, fuel cell technology initially will not meet that of diesel but we expect it to get there eventually,” Byrne said.
If AC Transit demonstrates that fuel cell buses are more reliable, easier and cheaper to maintain than their diesel counterparts, then large-scale production will become possible, Byrne said. With increased production, the price of the fuel cells will drop, he added.
Other important comparisons between hydrogen fuel and diesel buses include safety, maintenance, parts availability, general reliability and equipment down time, said Byrne.
If all goes well, within the next decade 15 percent or more of AC Transit buses will run on hydrogen fuel cells.