Clean Transport fuel cell bus

Published on July 23rd, 2014 | by Tina Casey


Ground Zero For US Fuel Cell Bus Initiative: Altoona

July 23rd, 2014 by  

Weren’t we just saying that like it or not, fuel cell EVs are here to stay? Well yes we did say that, and we said it before we even heard of this thing called the National Fuel Cell Bus Program. It’s an initiative of the Federal Transit Administration, which we never even heard of either, and it’s being launched in this city called Altoona, Pennsylvania, which we actually have heard of because (disclaimer alert) we are from Pennsylvania. Go, Pennsylvania!

Not to harp on a theme, but we will anyways: this is yet another example of how President Obama is using his executive authority to spread advanced energy technology around among the 50 states, regardless of the political leanings of their Governors. Did we say clean energy? No, we said advanced energy. That’s because there is an interesting twist at play in Pennsylvania but we’ll get to that in a minnit.

fuel cell bus

Fuel cell bus (cropped) courtesy of Ballard Power Systems

The Fuel Cell Bus From Aberdeen To Altoona, via Ballard

The latest fuel cell bus news crossed our radar in the form of a press release from Ballard Power Systems. The company is, naturally enough, very excited that it has been selected by the company New Flyer Industries to contribute its advanced fuel cell technology to the test launch of a fuel cell bus in Altoona.

This latest project continues a relationship between Ballard and New Flyer on fuel cell buses that goes back to 1991. The partnership is fresh off a successful demo test of a 20-strong fleet of fuel cell buses in Canada, which clocked a total of 2.5 million miles over a five-year span ending earlier in 2014.

Earlier this spring Ballard also launched a new project in Aberdeen, Scotland, in which its fuel cells will power buses made by the leading European bus manufacturer Van Hool NV.

At play in the Altoona project is the latest iteration of Ballard’s fuel cell tech, which it calls FCvelocity®-HD7. In addition to improved efficiency related to the fuel cell itself, Ballard has focused on cutting costs through the manufacturing process.

Yep, Fuel Cell EVs Are Here To Stay

As for the National Fuel Cell Bus Initiative, its parent the Federal Transit Administration comes under the Department of Transportation. It actually dates back to 2006 (yep, that would be the Bush/Cheney years),

In 2012, DOT pumped new funding of $13.1 million into the initiative, for 11 different projects. A couple of those were funded by a huge consortium that works in support of the initiative. Called CALSTART, the consortium is also behind the Altoona project.

Take a look at CALSTART’S membership list and you’ll see a host of leading energy and mobility players including GM, which has recently announced a fuel cell patent sharing plan with Toyota. GM is also behind the Army’s first ever 100 percent fuel cell EV fleet in Hawaii.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Also working closely with DOT on the fuel cell bus angle is another consortium called the Center for Transportation and the Environment, which includes Ballard among other private sector and research institution partners.

The Fuel Cell Bus And The Hydrogen

Getting back to that Pennsylvania twist, the state has become notorious for its natural gas boom, which is directly related to its lax regulation of natural gas fracking.

Since natural gas is currently the primary source of hydrogen for fuel cells, that makes Pennsylvania a logical choice to demonstrate the commercial viability of the hydrogen fuel cell bus.

However, that also makes the hydrogen fuel cell bus a poster child for the dark side of fuel cells, namely, the technology’s reliance on fossil fuel.


That’s why for now we’re emphasizing that the Obama Administration’s fuel cell bus initiative is an advanced technology initiative, not necessarily a clean tech initiative.

However, given the advances in sustainable hydrogen sourced through solar power, wastewater, landfill gas, and biogas, a more sustainable potential for fuel cells is in sight.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • sault

    If the bus’ daily route takes it beyond the practical range of batteries, fuel cells still might not make sense. Since hydrogen production, distribution and delivery infrastructure is very expensive, it would be a lot easier to have opportunity charging along the bus route, especially at time check locations. In addition, overhead charging wires can be installed along the bus route to help keep its batteries charged for much cheaper than all this hydrogen nonsense. Electric buses that use overhead wires have been operating in San Francisco for years now and have a great track record.

    Personally, I think overhead wires look awesome and give a town a lot of character, but of course, it’s a near certainty that a lot of NIMBY-ism will have to be overcome to get them installed.

    • Vensonata

      Already available and in service, Battery range about 175 miles, enough for all city buses. Greyhound wil have to battery swap.

      • Vensonata

        I have to update my info. Proterra bus range 300 miles per charge. Now you really are talking greyhound range. Pro terra is already in service in .u.s.

        • Bob_Wallace

          300 miles with swappable batteries would make it a usable long distance bus.

  • vensonata

    It’s over already. Hydrogen is dead, long live lithium. BYD buses are here…could have been here 3 years ago, these days almost anybody can build an electric battery bus that is more economical than petrol.

  • Doug

    The “successful” demo test in Whistler was hardly my view of success. Because of enormous operating costs, primarily getting the H2 to the buses, the project was terminated. A fleet of H2 buses may make sense if the buses operate very near a source of supply, such as a large refinery. I’m still very unclear on the point of H2 FCEV as cheaper technical solutions exist that are not reliant on fossil fuels and the fossil fuel infrastructure – the whole point of “alternative” vehicles.

  • JamesWimberley

    Ballard quoted around $1m a bus last year (pdf, page 8, link). BYD’s K9 electric bus goes for half that (Wikipedia: (2-3 m. yuan, or $395,000 – $592,600), plus lower fuel costs and cheaper and safer rechargers. The only thing fuel cell buses have going for them at this point is that they use dirty Pennsylvania natural gas as the source of the hydrogen! Suggestion to Secretary Moniz: move fuel cells to the “nice try but no cigar” file along with nuclear.

    • Matt

      Last interview I saw with Moniz he had not given up on nuclear. Still dreaming that maybe the new design would save it.

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