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Philly Transit to Put $17M Toward Hydrogen Fuel Cell Buses

SEPTA plans to spend $17 million on 10 fuel cell electric transit buses that run on compressed hydrogen gas as part of a transition to a zero-emissions fleet. Almost all of the agency's 1,447 buses are hybrids with only 120 burning diesel.

(TNS) — Before too long, you may be riding a bus that generates its own electricity and emits nothing but water vapor from the tailpipe.

SEPTA is spending $17 million on 10 fuel-cell electric transit buses that run on compressed hydrogen gas as part of the agency's transition to a zero-emissions fleet.

"A lot of the advantage comes back to just the additional range that hydrogen affords the vehicle," said Tyler Ladd, director of power engineering for SEPTA.

Almost all of the agency's 1,447 buses are hybrids. Just 120 burn only diesel.

A fully charged electric battery bus can travel 150 to 200 miles, depending on the temperature and how hilly a route is, Ladd said. A tank of hydrogen, converted to electricity by fuel cells on board, will carry a bus 300 miles or more, he said.

It also takes 12 to 15 minutes to gas up a bus with hydrogen vs. a couple hours to charge the batteries, he said. Battery charging also requires transit systems to build generating stations.

Battery-powered electric buses have been SEPTA's preferred option for cleaner energy. But its first 25 all-electric coaches, bought in 2016, had to be pulled from the road in February 2020 after cracks were discovered in their frames.

They're still not back in service as Proterra, the manufacturer, works with SEPTA to fix the problem. Last November, a battery power pack ignited in one of the sidelined vehicles parked in SEPTA's Southern Bus Depot. It took hours for city fire crews to douse the blaze.

Electric battery buses are more prevalent, but a growing number of transit agencies are integrating hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles into their fleets, including those in Canton, Ohio; suburban Los Angeles County; and Orange County, Calif.

By 2030, the Mass Transit District in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., says the majority of its buses will run on hydrogen generated electricity, and eventually about 70% will be powered that way. It is building a solar array to power the production of hydrogen.

Makers of large trucks and commercial vehicles are also turning to hydrogen fuel.

"This is about the closest I've seen us get so far to that real turning point," said Shawn Litster, a professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, who's studied fuel cells for two decades.

Most hydrogen produced globally is made using natural gas or coal, both carbon fuels, and is used to refine petroleum or make chemicals and steel. Proponents note green-energy options are being developed, including wind and solar power, for a process that removes hydrogen from water.

SEPTA officials say they'll test the hydrogen-fueled buses on different routes and in varying weather conditions to see how they perform compared to the system's hybrid electric-diesel buses and, eventually, the all-electric Proterras.

A contractor will handle fueling for three years as SEPTA studies the technology and is not dictating how the hydrogen is produced as long as renewables are used at the same rate as they are in the Pennsylvania electricity grid, Ladd said.

New Flyer, a Canadian bus manufacturer, will build the new fuel-cell buses at facilities in Minnesota and they are scheduled to begin arriving at SEPTA's Midvale depot in January 2024.

This article includes information from the Associated Press.

©2023 The Philadelphia Inquirer, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.