Newer, cleaner forms of public transportation could become a reality in Butler County, but only if local agencies are able to fund the remainder of a vehicle’s price once federal grants are secured.
That’s according to Matt Dutkevicz, the Butler County Regional Transit Authority’s executive director, who said hydrogen fuel cell or battery electric buses are two options that would be a leap forward in local transportation in terms of reducing emissions and increasing sustainability.
“We’re interested in any kind of clean fuel technology that’s affordable and efficient,” Dutkevicz said. “We always kind of have our eyes on the horizon to see what’s coming up … so that we can be a resource for the community and bring the best solutions to the table for them.”
Fuel cells are considered safer than gasoline-powered vehicles and are two to three times more efficient, according to Stark Area Regional Transit Authority in Canton, which showed off the new technology last week at the 2018 Think Regional Southwest Ohio Summit in West Chester Twp.
Unlike conventional diesel or gasoline-fueled vehicles, fuel cell cars and trucks combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, which runs a motor. The fuel cell is able to use 40 to 60 percent of the energy from the fuel — the hydrogen — to power the vehicle.
That means reducing the need for about 9,000 gallons of fuel over the lifetime of the vehicle and reducing the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere by 100 tons per vehicle, the equivalent of 10 school buses of carbon emissions.
Also appealing is that both hydrogen fuel cell buses and battery electric buses offer fewer moving parts than their diesel-fueled, liquid natural gas or compressed natural gas counterparts, which rely on an internal combustion engine that requires a great deal of maintenance and attention, Dutkevicz said.
“From our perspective, that’s an efficiency,” he said. “We’re a public agency, we want to be responsible and if the price of these electric and hydrogen vehicles comes down, that bus can spend more time on the road providing service than in the garage with us doing extra things and providing additional maintenance to keep it out there every day.”
But BCRTA, which does not have any dedicated local funding, would need to find a local agency with which to partner to secure low-emission or no-emission grants.
“We need a partner at the table like a Hamilton or a Butler County or somebody who says ‘We want to get this project off the ground. We want a clean fuel transit route, transit system and we’re going to help fund that if BCRTA will operate and go find the federal funds … then we can bring some local money to the table,” Dutkevicz said.
Dutkevicz said hydrogen fuel-cell buses could be an option for Hamilton as Spooky Nook at Champion Mill opens in about two years and a greater demand is placed on local infrastructure.
A “decked out” diesel bus can cost as much as $600,000, while each hydrogen fuel-cell bus now costs about $1.2 million, according to Kirt Conrad, SARTA’s executive director and CEO.
“At this point … the expense is because they’re single-order runs, but we have a target point of probably about $700,000,” Conrad said. “European bus makers are about there now.”
SARTA, along with Ohio State University’s Center for Automotive Research and the Ohio Department of Transportation, launched the Midwest Fuel Cell Center of Excellence and the Renewable Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Collaborative in 2017.
In the United States, there’s one such vehicle in Boston, Mass., one in Flint, Mich. and several in Palm Springs and Oakland, Calif., Conrad said. Orange County, Calif., just south of Los Angeles, recently signed a contract for 25 of the vehicles, he said.
SARTA recently purchased 10 hydrogen fuel cell buses, making its fleet the largest in the United States outside of California.
A kilogram of hydrogen has the same energy release as a gallon of gasoline, and provides about 60 to 70 miles per kilogram, double the mileage provided by gasoline, Conrad said.
Normal range for such a vehicle is as much as 230 miles but the upper limit range is continually being expanded, he said.
Because it is a hybrid, it recharges as it decelerates. It also lasts about 12 years, the typical lifespan of a diesel transit bus.