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Santa Cruz, Calif., Area Buying 57 Hydrogen-Powered Buses

Santa Cruz Metro is expected to finalize the purchase of 57 hydrogen fuel cell-electric buses in a matter of weeks and it will be the single largest purchase for that variety of zero-emission vehicle in the nation.

(TNS) — Santa Cruz Metro is expected to finalize the purchase of 57 hydrogen fuel cell-electric buses in a matter of weeks and it will be the single largest purchase for that variety of zero-emission vehicle in the nation.

Once the vehicles are received, an estimated 12 to 18 months after sign-off from the Metro board, the hydrogen buses alone will make up more than half of Metro's 97-bus fleet.

But what makes this technology so special that Metro would put roughly 60% of its eggs in one basket?

"I think the board really has chosen a hydrogen path," Santa Cruz Metro CEO Michael Tree told the Sentinel.

Hydrogen hype

Tree said state and federal authorities have been pushing transportation agencies to move quickly toward a low-carbon future for some time. While federal officials have indicated a strong preference for this, the state has put it in writing and will require Metro to operate exclusively zero-emission vehicles by the year 2040.

But whether those vehicles come in the form of hydrogen fuel or battery electric buses is largely up to the local board.

Tree said that the advantages of hydrogen fuel cell buses compared to electric battery buses are fourfold. Firstly, the standard 40-foot hydrogen buses can travel about 300-350 miles before needing to refuel while battery buses of the same size have a 175-200-mile range.

On top of that, refueling a hydrogen bus takes only about eight minutes, while the battery buses require an overnight charge. Additionally, hydrogen buses have fewer batteries and are almost 11,000 pounds lighter than battery electric —32,770 pounds compared to 43,650, respectively —resulting in fewer roadway impacts.

Unlike battery electrics, a hydrogen fuel station can also be reliably powered by a generator, giving the buses a key resiliency component in a county that has suffered multiple environmental disasters in recent years.

"If you've got a whole fleet of battery electric buses and you have a natural disaster that takes out your electricity for any sustainable time period, you're dead in the water," said Tree. "If the power is out, we're still up and going and we can help with wherever the (emergency operations center) needs us to be."

Nuts and bolts

Tree explained that both hydrogen and battery electric vehicles power their motors with an electrical charge, the difference is in the mechanism for creating that electricity. Similar to other electric vehicles, the battery buses recharge by simply connecting to an electric port.

Conversely, hydrogen fuel buses refuel similar to any gas-powered vehicle. The refueling station has a nozzle that pumps hydrogen gas into a series of fuel cell tanks that generate the electricity that powers the motor.

Most of the funding for the 57 hydrogen vehicles —nine of which have expanded capacity and will be dedicated exclusively to service at UC Santa Cruz —comes from state and federal grants. Some additional money will also arrive through state vouchers and settlement funds from Volkswagen after it was found liable for violating vehicle pollution standards several years ago.

According to Tree, only $918,000 of the $88 million it costs to purchase all 57 buses is local money, specifically from the 2016 Measure D transportation sales tax. Typically for these purchases, a local authority will spend 20% of the total while receiving 80% of funding from state and federal partners, he said.

Metro was awarded a federal grant worth $20.3 million announced in July, which came on the heels of a state grant totaling $38.5 million in April.

While hydrogen fuel is expensive and the buses come at a slightly higher cost than electric battery vehicles, Tree said a price analysis from Metro revealed that the total capital costs for investing in hydrogen were lower, primarily because they require far fewer refueling stations. Metro has funding to establish one station in Santa Cruz and is planning to build another in Watsonville at some point soon.

Both bus varieties have a roughly 12-year lifespan.

"It's about environmental sustainability, it's about community wellbeing and it's about equity," said Santa Cruz Metro Board Chair Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson.

Once the purchase of the hydrogen vehicles and a separate deal for a couple of more electric battery vehicles are finalized, Kalantari-Johnson said the agency will have 57 hydrogen fuel, 10 battery electric, 22 natural gas and eight hybrid diesel buses in its fleet.

This puts Metro ahead of schedule in its effort to convert its entire fleet to zero emission by 2037, she said.

"We're well on our way," said Kalantari-Johnson. "We anticipate we'll meet it, with a mixture of hydrogen and battery electric buses, ... before 2037."

Could be greener

Though the hydrogen vehicles are zero emission on paper, Tree admitted that the green technology is not yet as clean as the board had hoped for.

He estimated that about 70% of the hydrogen fueling the buses will come from natural gas and other unfavorable greenhouse gas sources, at least initially. The other 30% will come from truly sustainable sources such as wind, solar and the capturing of biomass at dairy farms.

But ultimately, he takes some solace in the fact that there will be "no tailpipes" in the county's communities.

"At the end of the day where the impact is, there's no tailpipe and those buses are running around in the community next to the schools, next to the subdivisions," said Tree. "We're doing our part where we can do our part."

But there are also long-term plans to close the sustainability loop.

Metro is a member of the state's Alliance for Renewable Clean Hydrogen Energy Systems, which is currently applying to secure $1.2 billion from the U.S. Department of Energy to establish a "hydrogen hub" in California. The 100% green project would create an environmentally sustainable system for producing and delivering hydrogen on a massive scale and, according to Tree, could bring down the cost of hydrogen fuel to the equivalent of about $2 per gallon.

"We've got a vision for how to get green hydrogen, how to deliver it in a green fashion and how to significantly slash the price to $2, which would be the win, win, win all the way around," said Tree.

© 2023 the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.