Debating the Merits of Hydrogen and Batteries for Buses

To switch to fully electric bus fleets, transit agencies can invest in batteries and hydrogen fuel cells. Both have their advantages.
June 19, 2019, 1pm PDT | Philip Rojc | @PhilipRojc
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As more cities seek to minimize their use of fossil fuels, bus fleets are one obvious place to start. But should the buses of the future be powered by rechargeable battery or hydrogen fuel cell? "There isn't an obvious answer. Both are more environmentally friendly than fossil-fuel buses, and both can be cost-effective options," Daniel C. Vock writes.

Vock reports on two Illinois transit agencies that have made the switch. One of them, the Rock Island County Metropolitan Mass Transit District, went with batteries. "One concern for the agency was how the batteries would perform over the long haul. The battery technology is so new that the agency has had to rely on engineers' estimates about battery life rather than real-world testing," Vock writes. But so far, the buses have met or exceeded agency expectations.

The Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District (MTD), by contrast, found the battery electric option lacking. Serving the students of the University of Illinois, who "expect buses to come frequently and run late into the night," MTD wanted engines that could match diesel's range. It also had qualms about recharging batteries on the power grid, which runs on coal in Champaign-Urbana. Currently, MTD plans to produce its own hydrogen.

In both cases, agencies will have to come to terms with upfront costs. Both the Rock Island County Metropolitan Mass Transit District and the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District defrayed some of that expense with federal grant money.

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Published on Tuesday, June 11, 2019 in Governing
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