Hydrogen-cell buses put C-U ahead of the curve

Hydrogen-cell buses put C-U ahead of the curve

CHAMPAIGN — The Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District's purchase of two hydrogen fuel cell buses is the first step toward building a much larger fleet of the zero-emissions buses that are even quieter and less polluting than the MTD's diesel-electric hybrid buses.

The MTD last month received a $1.45 million federal grant that will pay for two buses, hydrogen fuel production equipment and a hydrogen fuel storage facility.

"From an environmental perspective it's kind of a two-pronged win," said Karl Gnadt, the MTD's managing director. "One, it doesn't release any emissions into the environment. And we don't burn any fossil fuel in the production or fueling of the vehicle.

"Even with an all-electric bus, you have a zero-emission vehicle, but the power is generated at the power plant that is burning coal and is producing emissions. Hydrogen fuel cells eradicate the problem."

The MTD will be the first transit system in the country to operate 60-foot articulated buses — used mostly in the University of Illinois campus area — powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

"There are many other systems across the country that have hydrogen buses in operation today," Gnadt told the MTD board last week, citing the Canton, Ohio, transit authority that already has 11 hydrogen fuel cell buses and is getting two more. "They have been on the bleeding edge, but it has been very, very successful for them."

The buses are expensive to purchase, Gnadt said. Canton spent about $2 million apiece for its first hydrogen fuel cell buses, but the most recent buses cost about half that.

"They're more expensive (than standard diesel and diesel-electric hybrid buses), but as the technology becomes more proliferated in the industry, then the cost for the vehicle will come down," Gnadt said. "That is an incredibly rapid drop-off."

MTD board member Don Uchtmann welcomed the use of the new technology.

"I think there is nothing better for transit in general than to get a real experience with different technologies as they are coming online so that we can use that experience to inform not only our system but systems nationally," he said.

Gnadt called the hydrogen fuel cell-powered buses the future of transportation.

"This is really the direction that I believe that vehicle technology is going, not just vehicle technology but energy technology. This is where I think it's going," he said. "There are trucks and forklifts already like this. It's penetrating those markets. There are several car companies beginning R&D on fuel cell cars.

"The challenge is the same one that Tesla had when it rolled out its cars. You've got to have charging stations for Tesla and the same thing with these. You've got to have hydrogen stations. There has to be an infrastructure nationwide for these vehicles to work. But it's just a matter of time."

At the MTD, he said, the plan is to manufacture the hydrogen using water and solar energy.

"The long-term goal is to do that renewably," he said. "We will use solar energy to produce the hydrogen that will fuel the buses. Once we do that, outside of the capital costs, literally the only expense we will have to produce the fuel for the bus is water. That's a pretty inexpensive fuel for the vehicles."

The hydrogen fuel cell buses will be able to go about 300 miles without refueling, he said, and their lifespan should exceed standard diesel buses. Their "guts" are unusually simple, he said.

"You open up the back, and there's no engine in there. There's just this box that is a fuel cell, and a really small electric motor. And that's it. So the maintenance cost is greatly reduced from what a normal diesel or diesel hybrid is because there's no engine, there's no transmission," he said. "All there is a fuel cell and electric motor. That's it."

The $1.45 million federal grant, announced last month by Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, won't pay for the entire cost of the project. The MTD will combine the grant with about $2 million in local, state and other federal money to cover the entire cost.

"Our grant application was for $3.5 million. We got the $1.5 million, and that left us with $2 million that we have to come up with. That's OK," Gnadt said. "So we're having to reorient some of our project funding that we had earmarked for other things."

Within 10 years, Gnadt said, the MTD will be buying more hydrogen fuel cell buses than the hybrids.

"The plan would be to start slowly and incrementally expand the hydrogen fleet," he said.

The first hydrogen fuel cell buses will be on the streets of Champaign-Urbana in 2019.

"They look like any other bus, but we'll brand them," he said. "We'll do something that lets those vehicles pop and look differently."