New bus depot in Maryland blows up the Internet with solar powered green hydrogen production on site (image courtesy of AlphaStruxure).

Maryland Cooks Up Green Hydrogen Scheme To Kill Diesel Buses

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The largest self-sustaining bus depot in the entire US is coming to Montgomery County, Maryland, featuring solar arrays and on-site green hydrogen production. That may not sound too exciting if you can afford to buy the latest shiny new electric car, but it is exciting for underserved communities in the area. County officials are counting on the green hydrogen-fueled fleet to fill gaps in the transit network and achieve equity goals.

Green Hydrogen For Fuel Cell Buses

Hydrogen fuel cell electric cars have yet to catch on in the US, but buses, trucks, and other heavy-duty use cases are beginning to gain traction.

That’s not particularly great news for rapid decarbonization if the hydrogen comes from natural gas, which is currently the primary source of the global hydrogen supply.

The picture changes when green hydrogen is in the picture, meaning hydrogen pushed from water with electrolysis systems powered by renewable energy. Renewable hydrogen can also be sourced from biogas and other organic wastes, but currently most of the focus is on water electrolysis.

The green hydrogen angle was in play last summer, when the Montgomery County Department of Transportation won a $15 million matching grant from the US Department of Transportation to buy 13 hydrogen fuel cell buses to replace 13 diesel buses in the County’s Ride On fleet.

MCDOT had to compete against other transit agencies to nail down the award. The FTA only had a total of $1 billion to hand out for transit modernization and it received proposals totaling more than $7.7 billion.

MCDOT is counting on the fuel cells to provide longer range and faster fueling times than comparable battery-electric buses.

A Green Hydrogen Microgrid For Fuel Cell Buses

The new fuel cell buses will go into service in 2025. When they do, their home base will be the Equipment Maintenance And Transit Operations Center in Rockville, which is getting a green energy microgrid makeover.

MCDOT anticipates that the facility will be the largest self-sustaining bus depot in the nation, assuming some other transit agency doesn’t come along with a competitive construction schedule.

By self-sustaining they mean a microgrid system that can detach from the wider grid in an emergency and keep going indefinitely. The plans call for on-site rooftop and canopy-style solar arrays totaling 5 megawatts (DC), along with a 2 MW/7.35 MWh battery energy storage system. If all goes according to plan, the whole works will go online early in 2025, just in time to receive the new fleet of 13 fuel cell buses.

MCDOT expects that the solar-plus-storage system will provide enough clean kilowatts to handle an eventual fleet of 200 zero emission buses by 2035, including EV charging for battery-electric buses as well as an electrolysis system to produce green hydrogen for the fuel cell buses. The system will also provide electricity to five buildings at the site.

Zero Emission Mass Transit Beyond Scope 1

MCDOT points out that the switch from diesel to green hydrogen extends the reach of their decarbonization efforts.

“By fueling the County’s initial 13 FCEBs [Fuel Cell Electric Buses] with green hydrogen produced by the microgrid’s solar, this solution not only advances the County’s goal to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2035 but also reduces their Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 4,000 metric tons of CO2 per year, equivalent to approximately 780 homes’ electricity use for one year,” MCDOT explains.

“Scope 1” refers to direct greenhouse gas emissions from a facility and its operations. In terms of vehicles, that essentially means tailpipe emissions. Both battery-powered and fuel cell vehicles are zero-emission vehicles under Scope 1 (fuel cell vehicles are electric vehicles, but they deploy a fuel cell instead of a battery).

Things get more complicated when Scope 2 comes into play. Scope 2 refers to the supply chain. For example, a battery-powered vehicle that recharges from a grid mix that includes fossil energy can’t claim zero for Scope 2 emissions. The same goes for a fuel cell that runs on fossil-sourced hydrogen.

The Scope 2 problem withers away when green hydrogen is in the mix. That can go for battery-electric vehicles as well as fuel cell vehicles. Battery EV stakeholders are beginning to explore the benefits of deploying fuel cells to power battery EV charging stations. That could help provide EV drivers with a zero Scope 2 recharging option in remote off-grid locations as well as areas where the grid mix still includes fossil energy.

Scope 3 emissions are a whole ‘nother can of worms that can wait for another time.

Who’s Gonna Pay For All This Green Hydrogen?

As for the cost of the microgrid makeover, that’s easy. There is no up-front cost. MCDOT is getting the whole soup-to-nuts project done through an energy-as-a-service contract with the Boston firm AlphaStruxure, which is a joint venture of Schneider Electric and the global investment firm Carlyle Group.

“The microgrid is delivered without capital expenditures to the County through an EaaS contract, a long-term agreement ensuring predictable operating expenses and guaranteed performance without upfront capital expenditures,” AlphaStuxure emphasized.

If AlphaStruxure rings a bell, you may be thinking of Montgomery County’s other claim to EV fame. Back in 2021, CleanTechnica took note of the County’s Energy-as-a-Service deal with AlphaStruxure to construct the nation’s biggest solar-plus-storage bus fleet charging station, the Brookville Smart Energy Bus Depot. The facility is expected to reach its capacity of charging 70 electric buses by 2026.

Energy-as-a-Service contracts are similar to the familiar Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) contracts that have helped fuel renewable energy investment in the US. PPAs enable energy consumers to get their hands on clean power, without having to shoulder the capital costs up front. The developer gets paid back over time while the consumer can reap the bottom line benefits of a more stable and predictable energy supply, freedom from commodity price spikes, and an overall reduction in costs compared to conventional fossil fuels.

Who’s Afraid Of The ESG?

Of course, no story about renewable energy investment would be complete without taking note of the anti-ESG (environmental, social, governance) fever that has gripped state-level Republican policymakers in about two dozen US states (see more coverage here).

For all their caterwauling, though, the smart money is heading over to decarbonization. A number of these very same states are hosting clean tech ventures that will accelerate the pace of decarbonization all around the US. That weakens their case against clean energy investment in other states, like Maryland, that are aggressively embracing decarbonization.

For that matter, what happens in Maryland doesn’t necessarily stay in Maryland. AlphaStruxure CEO Juan Macias anticipates that the new microgrid with green hydrogen will set the “gold standard for resilient, sustainable public transit” across the nation.

“This project…further establishes Montgomery County, MD as the nation’s leading municipality when it comes to embracing the transit infrastructure of tomorrow,” Macias emphasized. “We are excited to be part of this innovative and transformative initiative that will shape the future of public transit for years to come.”

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About That Green Hydrogen…

Some energy industry observers insist that the jury is still out on green hydrogen. That may be a case of locking the barn door a day late and a dollar short. The US of Department of Energy has been greasing the sustainable H2 wheels long before President Joe Biden took office, and his administration has upped the ante with $8 billion in funding for a network of regional hydrogen hubs. By law, some amount of natural gas is in the mix but the focus is on renewable resources.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, for one, is excited. “Of particular excitement is the integration of green hydrogen production, powered by the microgrid, highlighting our commitment to pioneering cutting-edge renewable solutions and leading by example when it comes to sustainable, resilient transportation,” he said.

Those green hydrogen producers better hurry up if they want to keep up with the demand for fuel cell buses. Transit agencies in California have been pushing the fuel cell envelope as an improvement over compressed natural gas buses. Philadelphia’s SEPTA system is among those recently dipping into the fuel cell bus waters among eastern states, and fuel cell buses are also heading for Rochester, New York.

Image: Solar-powered bus depot with green hydrogen (courtesy of Alphastruxure via prnewswire).

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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.

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