A U.S. Department of Energy report published late last year recognized Ohio as a leader in the continued support for fuel cell technologies, helping to reduce emissions, improve energy efficiency and create new business opportunities.

The industry in the state is just starting to hit the road through the experimental application of fuel cells in public transportation. While the journey will be a lengthy one, supporters of the technology believe fuel cells can be an economic and environmental boon for Ohio's transit sector.

A Good Start

The Stark Area Regional Transit Authority (SARTA) provides more than 2.7 million rides annually for residents of Stark County in northeast Ohio. By next summer, a portion of riders will be transported to their destination via buses powered by fuel cell technology.

That portion is small for now, as SARTA has two fuel cell buses tentatively scheduled for production in February and July of next year. The first vehicle is expected to be ready by August 2015, with the second bus arriving before the end of the year.

While the new buses will be carrying just a fraction of SARTA's customers, it's still a good start, believes transit authority president and CEO Kirt Conrad. When introduced, the buses will represent the state’s lone fuel-cell driven means of transportation.

The SARTA effort is part of the Federal Transit Administration's National Fuel Cell Bus Program, an initiative that has awarded more than $90 million in grants to projects that advance the manufacture of fuel cell technology in U.S. transit buses. California-based clean-transportation nonprofit CalStart helped SARTA obtain $5.5 million in federal funding, while the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) gave the transit group another $500,000 for a fueling station that would recharge the bus.

The vehicles, which cost about $2 million each, will be built by bus manufacturer ElDorado National. Canadian company Ballard Power Systems will produce the hydrogen fuel cells that power the buses, with an aim of reducing pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions along with effectively halving SARTA's fuel costs.

"We want to get eight miles per gallon instead of the four or five we were getting with normal diesel buses," said Conrad.

Fueling infrastructure and dispensing equipment will be erected on site, allowing for the direct delivery of liquid hydrogen. SARTA is also mulling local production of the fuel, likely through the steam reformation of natural gas.

Once the two fuel cell buses get rolling, SARTA will join transit agencies in cities including Palm Springs, Calif., and Flint, Mich., to actively operate the technology. The Ohio transit organization will test the vehicles for two years, tracking their mileage and performance. Success could mean an additional six fuel cell buses added to SARTA's fleet through the FTA program, as well as validation of the endeavor on a national scale.

"There's a consensus evolving on fuel cells in the larger economy," Conrad said. "Anything we can do to improve air quality is a big deal too."

Fuel cells would become part of a mix of strategies SARTA has implemented for its vehicles, noted the transit group president. The organization currently has compressed natural gas and biodiesel fuels in its energy-saving portfolio.

"We've been moving to reduce our carbon footprint as much as possible," Conrad said. "Fuel cells are a way to continue down that path."

Successful Experiment

SARTA will not be the first transit system in Ohio to demonstrate a hydrogen-fueled bus. Two years ago, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA) partnered with NASA Glenn Research Center for a 40-foot-long coach that emitted only water from its tailpipe.

The fuel cell bus was acquired through a one-year lease with a Connecticut company, though RTA returned the vehicle after nine months after another firm bought the company that RTA signed the original agreement with. The new company offered to sell the bus, but the transit organization declined the more-expensive offer.

Showcasing the clean and renewable technology was worth it, said RTA general manager Joe Calabrese. While the bus traveled just 70 miles a day -- less than half the distance of a diesel bus -- RTA officials were satisfied with how quiet and efficient the vehicle was during those shorter jaunts.

Fueling also proved to be straightforward and simple, noted Calabrese. RTA outfitted its facility with an electrolyzer, a device that separates hydrogen from water, allowing gas to be stored at the station and pumped into tanks on the vehicle, where it reacted in the fuel cell to supply power to the motor.   

Cost is always going to be a factor in fuel cell bus operation until more of the vehicles are on the road, says Calabrese. As a public transit experiment, however, the early results are positive.

"Our project ended sooner than we'd hoped, but we're pleased with how it turned out," Calabrese said. "Fuel cell technology is going to be around as an alternative."

SARTA acting as a new test bed for fuel cells could also boost a fledgling industry attempting to take root in Ohio, believes transit group president Conrad.

"Ours is a pinnacle project that can create a whole new market for fuel cells," he said. "If we can support economic growth and job development as a public agency, it's something we should do."

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland-based writer and journalist. He has written stories about technology, alternative energies and the environment for local and regional publications including Midwest Energy News, HiVelocity Magazine and Fresh Water Cleveland.

This story was originally published by FutureStructure