Ground Zero For US Fuel Cell Bus Initiative: Altoona

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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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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3243 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey