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Trucks.com: Southern California’s SunLine Transit Embraces Hydrogen Buses

Most people know Coachella for its celebrity-studded annual music festival in the California desert. But the area just east of Palm Springs is quietly becoming a hotbed of hydrogen-powered transit.

SunLine Transit Agency this week purchased five hydrogen fuel cell electric heavy-duty transit buses from New Flyer of America. The 40-foot buses will join a fleet of 79 buses SunLine uses to service a ridership that spans 1,120 square miles, five of which are already powered with hydrogen.

SunLine’s embrace of hydrogen fuel cells has a long history. The transit agency developed a policy to seek out zero, ultra-low and low emissions buses in 1993. While most of its fleet is powered with compressed natural gas, “SunLine has been running hydrogen fuel cells for about 15 years,” said SunLine Chief Executive Lauren Skiver.

In two years, Skiver predicts, 25 percent of the agency’s fleet will be hydrogen fuel cell electric buses built by two different companies: ElDorado National, based in Riverside, Calif., and New Flyer of America, of St. Paul, Minn.

New Flyer built its first hydrogen fuel cell bus in 1994, according to Chris Stoddart, vice president of engineering for New Flyer of America based in St. Paul, Minn. The company built 20 fuel cell buses for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

New Flyer will begin manufacturing fuel cell electric buses for commercial deployment in 2018. Built in Alabama, the first 25 buses will go to three different transit agencies in California, including SunLine as well as the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District and Orange County Transportation Authority. The SunLine buses will cost almost $1.2 million each.

“There’s tremendous interest in our industry toward zero emissions technology,” Stoddart said. “Just about every North American transit authority is learning more about electric propulsion.”

What’s attractive about hydrogen fuel cell buses is a 300- to 350- mile range that’s comparable to a diesel-powered bus, as well as a similar refueling time.

“Battery electric buses have a place in transit, but for us, we have a large service area, so we can’t deal with range anxiety,” Skiver said. “We need vehicles that can be on the road for a longer span of time than a battery bus.”

SunLine fuels its fuel cell buses with hydrogen it makes from renewable landfill gas. Next year, it will break ground on a new hydrogen-fuel production system that will generate the gas with a 900-kilowatt electrolyzer capable of producing enough fuel for its growing hydrogen fleet.

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