Friday, March 6, 2009

Fuel cell bus coming to SamTrans, but don't expect to ride it

A Santa Clara County VTA fuel cell bus similar to ones local transit agencies will evaluate this year.

SAN CARLOS, Calif. -- While SamTrans may soon be getting a hydrogen-fueled bus, don't expect a fleet of the fuel cell buses taking passengers around the streets of San Mateo County anytime soon.

David Olmeda, SamTrans' director of maintenance, updated the district's Citizens Advisory Committee (of which your blogger is a member) on Wednesday about a pilot program that will see 12 of the so-called "zero emissions vehicles" go to Bay Area transit districts this calendar year. One will go to Samtrans, which will run road tests on it.

"Do we know if the vehicle works? Yes, it does." Olmeda told the CAC. "Is it ready to replace diesel vehicles now? No, it is not."

Hydrogen fuel-cell engines, at least in the type envisioned by SamTrans, use a chemical reaction between hydrogen (the most plentiful element in the universe) and zinc to produce electricity and power the bus. While these vehicles are touted as "zero emissions," they do indeed emit significant amounts of water vapor -- also a greenhouse gas, although nowhere near as potent in climate change as carbon dioxide.

The 12 examples, purchased by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission from Gillig at a per-bus cost of $2.1 million each (more than five times the cost of a typical diesel bus), will be leased to a variety of transit agencies, including AC Transit, San Francisco Muni and Santa Clara County's VTA, as well as a single example for SamTrans. AC Transit, which has a hydrogen-fueling facility in Emeryville, will get the bulk of the order and test the buses in revenue services. [Clarification (March 15, 2:08 p.m.) -- reader Chris Peeples points out in a comment below that these buses are actually being purchased on an AC Transit contract (MTC was involved in the planning) and are not being built by Gillig. I believe he fact sheet I got at the meeting stated Gillig, but I have recycled it and can not verify in what context Gillig was mentioned. I apologize for the error.]

SamTrans, however, would not have the benefit of fueling facilities and would have to get its hydrogen either from Emeryville or VTA -- burning off a significant portion of the bus' range before it even gets into San Mateo County. Short of expensively trucking in a hydrogen fuel truck, it is therefore unlikely that everyday SamTrans riders will get a lift in a hydrogen bus soon.

Vancouver, which has ordered 21 of the hydrogen buses in preparation for the 2010 Winter Olympics, will be the biggest road tester of Gillig's hydrogen bus and will be looked upon to provide feedback for transit agencies across the continent.

"If performance from zero-emission buses is not what we're expecting, we may pursue other alternatives," Olmeda said. Such alternatives may include a wider use of bio-diesel. "It's a little more mature technology and can offer some benefits to us until we decide where technology takes us."

Olmeda did note that a combination of new, lower-polluting buses and the re-engineering of some older vehicles has more than halved SamTrans' pollution since 2002.


Anonymous said...


The fuel cell buses are not going to be purchased by MTC and they are not built on a Gilig body. They are being purchased under an AC Transit contract and will be built by Van Hool in Belgium with UTC (United Technologies Corporation) fuel cells in a hybrid configuration.

AC Transit has been running 3 of an earlier model of these buses since 2005. (See, click on "environment," then "HyRoad.") VTA ([Santa Clara] Valley Transportation Authority) tested three Gilig buses with Ballard fuel cells without battery buffering. SamTrans shared in that test. VTA, the lead on the experiment, has decided that the AC/VanHool design worked better.

This is all under the CARB (California Air Resources Board) Zero Emissions rule which requires that the Bay Area have 12 zero emission buses by 2012.

-- Chris Peeples --

John C. Baker said...


Thank you. The story has been amended with notes.