The first hydrogen-powered public bus in Los Angeles County will go into service early next month, a historic milestone that will unleash an army of similar, zero-emission buses that don’t connect to the power grid and run longer without refueling.
Foothill Transit is readying three new hydrogen fuel-cell electric buses for revenue service starting Dec. 5 on Line 291, which serves Pomona, Claremont and La Verne. The next set of hydrogen buses will be used on Line 486, which runs from the El Monte Bus Station to Mount San Antonio College in Walnut and Cal Poly Pomona university, said Felicia Friesema, the agency’s director of marketing and communications.
The bus agency soon will receive its full order of 33 hydrogen fuel cell buses, the largest order in North America, she said. Foothill estimates all 33 will be running by mid-February 2023.
Passengers will notice a quieter ride but the buses look exactly the same size as most of its fleet, about 40-feet long and seat 36 passengers. The sides of these clean-energy buses are painted with colorful nature scenes, including one with sea creatures and another depicting the iconic mountains and waterfalls of Yosemite National Park, all with the words: “Zero emissions: Hydrogen Fuel Cell.”
The hydrogen buses produce zero emissions, emitting only water.
These will replace some older battery electric plug-in buses that are also zero-emission, a wash in air pollution outcomes. But some will replace buses that run on Compressed Natural Gas (CNG), a fuel much cleaner than diesel but one that still produces greenhouse gases (GHGs) that contribute to climate change.
One hydrogen bus will eliminate the 3,655 grams of carbon dioxide emitted per mile by a CNG bus, said Roland Cordero, director of maintenance and diesel technology for Foothill Transit. A hydrogen bus emits zero criteria air pollutants that create smog, and zero GHGs, including no CO2, a main contributor to the increase in the Earth’s temperature that has lead to rising ocean tides, flooding and more intense hurricanes and wildfires.
“We are cleaning up the air in Los Angeles County,” Cordero said.
Each bus costs about $1.2 million, Cordero said. That’s slightly more than a battery-electric bus at $950,000, he added.
Foothill’s 33 hydrogen fuel cell buses represents 9% of its fleet of about 359 buses. The transit agency runs buses along the San Gabriel and Pomona Valley foothill communities of LA County, into downtown Los Angeles, north Orange County and the west end of San Bernardino County.
It will be the first agency to deploy this newest zero-emission bus in Los Angeles County. LA Metro does not have any hydrogen buses and none are on order, said Dave Sotero, Metro spokesman in an email. Metro is slowly replacing its CNG buses with battery-electric plug-in buses.
The Orange County Transportation Authority has 10 hydrogen-powered buses that have been in operation since early 2020, said Joel Klotnik, spokesperson. OCTA was the first in Southern California to operate a hydrogen bus. The Riverside County-based SunLine Transit Agency in Palm Springs has three hydrogen fuel cell buses, according to their website.
Omnitrans in San Bernardino County received $9.3 million in federal funding to combat climate change and reduce air pollution, said Rep. Pete Aguilar on Nov. 16 in a prepared statement. The money will be used to buy four hydrogen fuel cell buses.
The California Air Resources Board (CARB) requires a changeover to zero-emission buses by 2040 to cut down on smog-related pollutants and greenhouse gases. Foothill Transit in 2010 was the first transit agency in the region to put a battery-electric bus into service.
“We do pride ourselves on being innovative. We are meeting CARB rules while doing it in a way that make sense for our service profile and our customers,” Friesema said.
The agency’s first electric buses were 11 years old when they began having mechanical problems, most recently in 2021. One caught fire, while others needed parts that were unavailable and remained unusable for months. Up to 67% of its electric buses were not operating during 2019 and 2020, according to a report from this newspaper group. Many were paid for using taxpayer dollars out of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 passed by Congress after the Great Recession.
Foothill hopes to replace those buses with new hydrogen buses.
Hydrogen buses a better fit
With the passenger car industry producing battery-electric vehicles to help wean America off fossil fuels and reduce carbon-based gases that add to global climate change, some bus agencies are trying out hydrogen power instead. Foothill says there are several reasons why hydrogen is a better fit:
First, hydrogen buses travel 300 miles without stopping for refueling, as compared to battery-electric buses that need to recharge after 150 miles, said Cordero.
Hydrogen fuel-cell buses don’t need to stop mid service for refueling, as do battery-electric buses, he added.
These buses don’t plug into the grid, putting no added strain on regional electricity production. Also, a battery-electric bus takes between two and four hours to charge; re-fueling a hydrogen fuel-cell bus takes seven to 10 minutes, he said.
Last, the hydrogen refueling system can be laid into the existing CNG refueling infrastructure, keeping costs down, he said.
Foothill transit is putting in place a 25,000-gallon hydrogen fuel tank and refueling system at its Pomona facility, where buses can easily refill, just as they do now for CNG fuel. The tank may be the largest in Southern California for a transit agency, surpassing OCTA’s 18,000-gallon tank.
How it works
A hydrogen fuel-cell bus is also an electric bus, only it does not plug in. It has lithium ion batteries that are constantly charged from a hydrogen fuel cell. In other words, it makes its own power.
The hydrogen is stored in six tanks affixed to the roof of the bus. Hydrogen gas comes down into the fuel cell stack. Once hydrogen (H2) combines with oxygen (O2) in the air, it creates electricity that charges the battery that turns the direct, rear-wheel drive.
Heat and water vapor are the only emissions, Cordero explained. Heat is used to warm the cabin. Water vapor (H2O) comes out of the exhaust pipe.
Hydrogen is flammable, as is gasoline and diesel. But it dissipates faster than gasoline, Cordero said. Sensors are in place at the tanks and inside the bus. If they detect a leak, the flow of hydrogen shuts down, he added.
Almost ready to roll
At the Foothill Transit large facility in Pomona, mechanics and drivers were getting training on the workings of the new bus.
“There are your parking brakes, your mirrors. There are your high-beams,” explained instructor Mark Marquez to driver Refugio Dimas, pointing out each one. Dimas was sitting in the driver’s seat and getting ready to take the hydrogen bus out for a practice ride on Tuesday, Nov. 15.
Before that, mechanics peered into the back of the bus, and also pointed out the refueling port, labeled “CH2,” which stands for Compressed Hydrogen (H2 is the chemical symbol for hydrogen).
Homer Atwood, technical instructor, explained how the fuel cell splits the hydrogen molecule into protons and electrons, the latter creating the electricity inside the battery that runs the bus.
The new technology has been around for decades. It has been tried in a Toyota car called the Mirai, with little acceptance by the public, mostly because hydrogen fueling stations are hard to come by. But fleets can import and save hydrogen in large tanks in a controlled, centralized fueling location, making it more convenient to use.
Still, the new, zero-emission technology is breaking barriers in the Southern California transportation world.
“We are an early adopter of new technology,” said Friesema. “It is something we feel very strongly about supporting.”