SunLine’s growing hydrogen bus fleet can now refuel at a mobile station in Indio, in addition to SunLine’s Thousand Palms facility, which is home to the largest hydrogen fueling station dedicated to transit in the country.
The system, made possible through a partnership with NICE American Research which created the technology, is essentially a mobile trailer that allows for hydrogen refueling without a permanent station structure. The pump in Indio is NICE’s first mobile trailer, which the company has been working with SunLine to develop over the past six years.
“We continue to push the envelope of zero emission technology and renewable energy, which we know with climate change is more important today than it’s ever been,” SunLine CEO/General Manager Lauren Skiver said. “There is no reason for us to keep looking for proof. It’s now time for action. And we believe this community in this valley is ready to take the next steps to create a blueprint for the rest of the country.”
Previously, all of SunLine’s hydrogen buses traveled to Thousand Palms for refueling, even though some buses are stored at the Indio facility overnight. Skiver said this eliminates “deadhead miles,” or miles that buses are driving without paying passengers.
Every third day, liquid hydrogen is transported to the Indio facility from Ontario. The trailer holds enough hydrogen to fuel 10 buses, and when it is time to refuel, the pump compresses the liquid hydrogen into hydrogen gas, which enters the bus through a pump that looks just like a gas pump.
SunLine’s board of directors first voted to move toward a 100% alternative fuel fleet back in 1992, and the agency started by using natural gas. SunLine is now focused on converting its entire fleet to hydrogen fuel cell technology, which operates better at extreme temperatures than battery-powered buses, and can drive up to 350 miles on one charge.
SunLine currently has 21 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, four battery electric buses and 65 clean natural gas vehicles. SunLine plans to have its fixed-route bus fleet converted entirely to zero-emission buses by 2035, five years before a state regulation requires public transit agencies to reach a 100% zero-emission bus fleet by 2040.
“SunLine has been on the cutting edge of technology for hydrogen fuel cell for many years. And with this new process, this new filling station that we have here, we will continue to move our fleet forward,” said Glenn Miller, Indio Councilmember and chair of SunLine’s board of directors. “So in 2035, will be 100% emission free here with SunLine in the little Coachella Valley… We are leading the state of the nation on hydrogen cell fuel and technology here.”
U.S. Rep. Raul Ruiz and Indio Mayor Waymond Fermon also spoke at Wednesday’s event.
“We have a saying that batteries are the new gasoline and hydrogen is the new diesel,” said Jordan McRobie, business development director at NICE America Research.
McRobie said the mobile station can “mimic diesel” in terms of convenience, refueling speed, and price.
The size of the trailer could be scaled up for future models to hold more liquid hydrogen, allowing more buses or other vehicles to be refueled before the tanks needs to be refilled. The tanks could also eventually be installed underground, taking the place of gas tanks at gas stations. SunLine’s Thousand Palms facility produces hydrogen on-site, which takes up more space, but the mobile refueling unit allows for hydrogen refueling on a smaller footprint.
“This is just a storage station, it’s this is the exact same thing as a gas station, but for hydrogen,” said Joshua Miles, business analyst at NICE America Research.
Currently, the hydrogen delivered to the Indio facility is produced at an Ontario facility through a process called steam methane reforming, which uses natural gas such as methane and still emits greenhouse gas emissions. McRobie says the industry is focused on moving toward “100% green hydrogen,” but that the purpose of the SunLine facility is to demonstrate the technology first, then moving toward greener fuel sources. As an example, McRobie cited a large-scale hydrogen plant in the works in Nevada that will produce enough liquid hydrogen for 42,000 fuel cell electric vehicles a day and use gas from sources like landfills.