The Repository--The federal government is making a $25 million bet on hydrogen fuel cell technology in Canton. As part of that investment the largest public transit hydrogen pumping station outside of California is scheduled to open late next month.
After a ground breaking in January, local contractors earlier this week at SARTA's headquarters installed a 9,000-gallon tank that will hold liquid hydrogen at a temperature of 273 degrees below zero before vaporizers convert it into gas. On Wednesday, they were installing underground power lines and gas lines that will carry hydrogen gas to a dispensing unit.
"This has been a long slog and a lot of hard work for us to get here," said Kirt Conrad, the executive director of the Stark Area Regional Transit Authority.
Conrad, who's sought since 2013 federal funding for SARTA to use the hydrogen fuel cell technology, said the cost of the hydrogen pumping station, which can dispense about 300 to 400 kilograms a day and will have the capacity to expand, will be about $1.9 million, nearly all from federal funding. The share that came from local sales taxes was less than $100,000, he said.
The biggest benefit of hydrogen fuel cell buses: they emit nothing except water, said Conrad. And while compressed natural gas is less polluting than diesel fuel, CNG engines still emit some pollutants, and hydrogen is more than twice as fuel efficient than CNG and diesel engines. Electric buses are also zero-emission vehicles, but they have to be recharged every hour to two hours. But hydrogen, which currently costs about $4.63 a kilogram, for now, provides no fuel savings due to the plunge in oil prices the past year.
If this experiment in Canton is a success, then the results could be cleaner air, more adaptation in Ohio and nationwide of hydrogen fuel cell technology to help accomplish the goal of zero-emission vehicles, the establishment of a vehicle hydrogen fuel cell research program at Stark State, and the development of a local fuel cell industry that would result in more high-paying jobs.
Patrick Valente, executive director of the Ohio Fuel Cell Coalition, said the construction of the hydrogen station is a significant development for Ohio's fuel cell industry that could lead to the construction of other hydrogen pumping stations, leading to the use of hydrogen fuel cell cars.
"I think this is the beginning of an infrastructure in the state of Ohio we don't have at this point, and I think we will have (it) once people see the success of the buses," said Valente, who added that if hydrogen fuel cells are increasingly used then Ohio with its intricate supply chain for automotive and aerospace would stand to benefit.
He added that hydrogen vehicles also run quieter.
Conrad said when the station is opened around Sept. 26th, SARTA will be able to borrow for up to a month a hydrogen bus that's now part of a year-long demonstration at Ohio State University. OSU will turn over the bus at the end of the demonstration in May. A second hydrogen bus, now undergoing dependability tests by the Federal Transit Administration at Penn State University, will be delivered by January. These buses cost $2.5 million each, covered by federal grants.
SARTA now has on order another five hydrogen buses, which will be delivered between January and June. With a larger order, the cost per bus is about $1.9 million, again, covered by federal grants. And SARTA plans to order at least three buses after that, Conrad said. The fuel cell itself once cost $500,000, but with the greater economics of scale, the cost is down to $350,000, and he believes the cost for hydrogen buses could someday drop to about $750,000.
ElDorado manufactures the bus, BAE Systems makes the electrical drive train and Ballard Power Systems makes the fuel cells, which use the hydrogen to generate electricity for the buses' electric motors.
Conrad said a diesel bus typically costs about $600,000. SARTA now has 56 diesel buses, 40 compressed natural gas buses and four hybrid diesel/electric buses.
Conrad said the FTA was eager to test the deployment of hydrogen fuel cell buses outside of California where a couple of transit systems there use them. SARTA being a medium-sized transit system would make Stark County an ideal place to test the technology in a colder climate rather than in a more complex, larger transit system such as Cleveland, New York or Chicago, he said. And SARTA had been among the first to use compressed natural gas buses.
He said about 10 to 15 transit systems in the U.S. use hydrogen fuel cell technology.
"I think ultimately over time, they want to move all transit vehicles to a zero-emission platform," Conrad said. "They've found deployment of new technologies are easier within smaller agencies, smaller communities."
Conrad said the liquid hydrogen, which is easier to transport than gas, will be shipped from Air Products' hydrogen plant in Sarnia, Ontario, near Michigan. The plant extracts the hydrogen by using electricity produced with natural gas or hydropower, he said.
SARTA's chief said he's in discussions with a Stark State engineering professor about establishing a research program at the college that studies hydrogen fuel cells that would be funded in part by a $1 million federal grant.