(TNS) -- CANTON, Ohio -- The Stark Area Regional Transit Authority is adding two more buses to its 11-bus fleet of electric buses powered by hydrogen fuel cells.
A $1.75 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration will pay for the buses, which produce no emissions other than water and carbon dioxide, and which do not pull power from the electric grid.
Consider the grant a down payment on a future fuel cell car that won't be built in large numbers until there are enough fuel cell vehicles on the road to justify building hydrogen filling stations.
And SARTA wants to help make that happen. The transit authority has been working with the Ohio State University Center for Automotive Research and a private, California clean transportation company to solve this chicken-and-egg issue.
The collaborative earlier this month issued a "Hydrogen Road Map" for the Midwest, arguing that with enough early investment the region could see 135,000 fuel cell vehicles -- buses, trucks and cars -- during the next 15 years and 250 hydrogen filling stations.
And that would mean a lot of jobs in Ohio.
"If we can position ourselves, the modeling [used in the study] suggests that we can create up to 65,000 new jobs," said Kirt Conrad, executive director and CEO of SARTA.
Ohio already has a strong position in manufacturing components for fuel cells and fuel cell systems, and that's one of the reasons for the road map's optimism.
The road map targets metropolitan areas as the best place to start building fuel cell filling stations. And that's where SARTA is at the forefront. SARTA's is committed to becoming a refueling station for other businesses and consumers who drive fuel cell vehicles, said Conrad.
Conrad said the SARTA fuel cell fleet's operating problems have been few and have not involved the fuel cells themselves but some of the sub systems.
"Any time you have a new vehicle the bugs have to be worked out. We've had some problems, but not with the fuel cells, but with the blowers [compressors]. I think we have pretty much got those system problems worked out."
The basic electro-chemistry of the fuel cells on the buses is nothing new. But the sophistication and durability of the fuel cells, which are made by Ballard Power Systems of Canada, is what has moved fuel cells from laboratories to vehicles.
The 150 kilowatt (150,000 watts) fuel cells on the SARTA buses combine hydrogen with oxygen from the air in a chemical reaction that produces water and electricity. There is not combustion.
The current flows into a high-tech lithium-ion battery system and then to the drive motors, which are part of a sophisticated drive system that includes "regenerative" braking.
If that seems incredibly complicated, it's because it is. And expensive. But as more fuel-cell buses are manufactured, the cost of each bus has been falling, said Conrad.
"We have already seen the price of new [fuel cell] buses come down from $2.5 million to $1.4 million. And we can see the glide path to $650,000 to $700,00 (about the price of a diesel bus)."
The buses have a range of about 260 miles in typical city driving. They average about 9 miles per gallon equivalent compared to 4 to 4.5 miles per gallon for diesel buses and 3.8 miles per gallon equivalent for compressed natural gas powered buses.
All of the fuel cell buses are equipped with data loggers that collect performance data for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
"They monitor costs and fuel issues and overall performance, the cause of any breakdowns and ease of use for passengers. NREL has been doing this for 12 years," Conrad said.
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