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Electric Propulsion Growing in Popularity; Fuel Cell or Plug-In, the Technology Is Becoming More Widely Used

Senior Editor

Whether the technology is plug-in (using rechargeable batteries) or fuel cells, electric propulsion is becoming an increasingly feasible mode of operations for public transportation buses. A growing number of U.S. public transit agencies is incorporating electric-powered vehicles into their fleets, thanks to the growing presence of electric vehicle manufacturers and subcontractors. Figures from 2013, the latest available, quoted in APTA's 2014 Public Transportation Fact Book, show that 13.2 percent run hybrid-electric buses.

Here are a few examples of what's happening now and what's coming up.

Hydrogen Fuel Cells
FTA recently awarded funding to 10 public transit agencies through its Low or No Emission (NoLo) Vehicle Deployment Program. The Stark Area Regional Transit Authority (SARTA), Canton, OH, received $8.9 million for the purchase of five hydrogen fuel cell buses manufactured by ElDorado National, Ballard Power Systems and BAE Systems.

SARTA, located about 60 miles from Cleveland, earlier received funding for two other fuel cell buses through FTA's National Fuel Cell Bus Program. These buses should arrive by the end of 2015; one of them will undergo testing at FTA's Altoona facility before the agency places them in commercial service. The five buses covered in the NoLo grant will arrive later and will begin their service on a demonstration basis.

"When it comes to fuel cell technology itself, northeastern Ohio is has the third largest fuel cell industry in the U.S., behind Connecticut and California," said SARTA Chief Executive Officer/Executive Director Kirt Conrad. "A lot of the fuel cell industry is located here: manufacturing, research and development." Conrad explained that the state has invested $90 million in the fuel cell industry through Ohio Third Frontier, a statewide technology-based economic development initiative supporting companies, universities, nonprofit research institutions and other organizations.

The fuel cell powers the vehicle by taking hydrogen from on-board tanks and combining it with oxygen to create electricity and water, creating virtually no emissions. The engine also recaptures additional energy generated through braking, which it uses to recharge the batteries.

Conrad said he has been interested in electric vehicle technology for about 10 years. "Zero-emission vehicles allow an agency to move away from carbon-based fuel; it's totally based on renewable energy. Transit agencies that use this technology can lead the way toward carbon-free transportation--what we're all driving toward."

Over the past several years, the SunLine Transit Agency, Thousand Palms, CA, has tested several generations of hydrogen fuel cell bus technology. With a $9.8 million FTA NoLo grant, SunLine is preparing to build and deploy five buses similar to the ones SARTA is receiving.

"Fuel cells generate the energy to create electricity," said SunLine Chief Executive Officer/General Manager Lauren Skiver. "We have solar panels everywhere on our property. We're located out in the desert and we're not going to let any sun get away."

She also emphasized the importance of promoting hydrogen as a commercially viable fuel for public transit buses; for example, she explained, compressed natural gas has only become a popular fueling option because of agencies trying and maintaining it and staying with it for 20 years. "If you don't have some transit agencies that continue to move the ball with alternative fuel sources, these fuels fall by the wayside," she added.

SunLine has a long history with alternative fuels, beginning in 1994 when the agency replaced its entire diesel bus fleet with CNG-powered buses overnight. The five new buses, now being built, will be "battery-dominant." Unlike a traditional fuel cell bus, which includes a battery similar to the kind used in hybrid-electric vehicles to recharge the fuel cell, these buses will have large plug-in electric batteries partnered with small fuel cells that can extend their range of operation.

Tommy Edwards, SunLine's deputy chief performance officer, explained the operating specifics of a battery-dominant bus. A full-size fuel cell bus can run 250-300 miles without recharging while plug-in electric buses have a shorter range. The addition of a small fuel cell to the electric battery allows the engine to operate for the same distance as a full-size fuel cell bus.

"The biggest cost to operate a fuel cell bus is the fuel cell itself," Edwards said. "A large fuel cell may cost $600,000-$750,000 each. The very small fuel cell on a battery-dominant bus is much less, probably about $100,000. Because the fuel cell is so much smaller, the bus needs to carry only one or two tanks of hydrogen fuel instead of the seven tanks needed for the full-size fuel cell bus."

Michael Sanders, transit administrator for Connecticut DOT, described another side of fuel cells: stationary cells that power Connecticut Transit's bus maintenance facilities in Hartford and New Haven.

"Electric propulsion means that, rather than carrying the power plant with you, you can use the energy regenerated from a fuel cell," Sanders said. Stationary fuel cells use natural gas to create electricity and produce a fair amount of heat, which the agency uses to heat water in the facilities. In the future, he said, the electricity generated by these fuel cells could be used for charging electric-powered buses.

Sanders noted that Conn. DOT is a participant in an ongoing FTA "zero-emissions bus summit" that brings together public transit operators and bus manufacturers to discuss possible options for electric vehicles. Hybrid-electric buses make up part of the fleet for the agency's CTfastrak BRT, which enters service March 28 between Hartford and New Britain. In addition, 100 solar panels on the roof of the downtown New Britain terminal add to the agency's use of clean energy.

Siemens: Hybrid and All-Electric
Thomas Orberger, hybrid drives marketing manager for Siemens Industry Inc. Drive Technologies, described how electric powertrains can be used in a number of sizes of bus; Siemens has a contractual relationship with New Flyer, which builds the bus bodies. In the North American market, Siemens provides powertrain solutions for public transit buses ranging in size from 40 feet to 60 feet, as well as 70-foot double articulated vehicles for use in other countries.

While hybrid vehicles are popular globally, he said, the market is changing in North America where the focus is shifting to all-electric and fuel cell buses. For example, the Chicago Transit Authority is among the first agencies to operate these 40-foot electric buses. Siemens' plans include development, with New Flyer, of a 60-foot all-electric platform and a twin axle drive that will maintain operation in cold climates.

"The technical questions behind electric buses have been sufficiently addressed," Orberger said. "Now the issue is to make the technology more commercially accessible. If we are to deploy larger quantities to larger properties, we have to study what infrastructure ideas we will need to address, such as fueling facilities and vehicle storage."

BYD Motors Inc., which specializes in plug-in battery technologies, recently unveiled a fully battery-electric long-range bus that can transport up to 47 passengers at highway speed for more than 190 miles. This 40-foot vehicle, along with a 45-foot three-axle coach, will become available to clients by the end of the year, joining BYD's original 30- and 40-foot public transit buses and 60-foot articulated bus.

Earlier, BYD drove a 40-foot bus from the fleet of the Antelope Valley Transit Authority, Lancaster, CA, more than 1,500 miles to APTA's EXPO 2014 in Houston, charging at 10 locations along the way. Lancaster is the site of BYD's design and manufacturing facilities and "The Lancaster" is the name of its 60-foot articulated bus, which made its debut at the EXPO.

The company also creates high-tech batteries for markets other than public transit, such as energy storage, solar power and information technology.

Another U.S. electric bus manufacturer, Proterra, builds electric-powered buses that use "fast charge" or "opportunity charging" rather than refueling by plugging the vehicle into a standard charger. This process, which takes three to five minutes and can be done repeatedly, involves driving a bus into an overhead charging station where the charger head can connect with a point on the roof of the bus.

To allow the buses to travel farther on a single charge, Proterra recently introduced a new extended-range product line. The TerraVoltª XR extended-range battery will allow Proterra buses to travel up to 180 miles between charges. It fits interchangeably with the TerraVoltª FC fast-charge battery in the company's Catalystª vehicle platform. This system allows public transit agencies to select the right amount and type of energy storage to meet specific route requirements.

The Center for Transportation and the Environment, a nonprofit organization specializing in moving clean transportation technologies into the marketplace, takes a big-picture view of electric technologies for heavy-duty vehicles, including buses and trucks. As Executive Director Dan Raudebaugh explained, "We build a prototype of the technology, demonstrate how it works [and] then deploy it on a small number of vehicles to see how it will work under real conditions."

Buses are the best vehicles for trying out new technology, Raudebaugh said, because--unlike over-the-road trucks--they operate on fixed routes with professional drivers and maintenance staff and refuel at central locations. This predictability allows testers to add variables once they know how the vehicle operates in day-to-day conditions.

The different electric-based vehicle technologies--battery-electric, plug-in and fuel cell--complement each other, he said. They have different strengths: battery-electric buses are typically simpler to operate and train system employees to use, while fuel cell vehicles run longer distances between charges but are more complicated to run and maintain.

Another concern cited by Raudebaugh is the cost of refueling electric vehicles, as per-kilowatt rates differ throughout the day and in different parts of the U.S. while the cost of hydrogen for fuel cells is "pretty predictable no matter when you fuel."

While public transit agencies are finding various ways to incorporate electric power into their bus fleets, all of these technologies are moving toward increased ease of use and practicality.
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