PINELLAS PARK — Imagine a nearly silent, carbon-free bus rolling through the streets of Tampa Bay.
That’s the dream of Alain Cerf, the owner of the Tampa Bay’s Automobile Museum, who brought in a panel of experts to discuss the future of hydrogen-fueled transit at an event Tuesday.
The buses emit only clean water and heat from the tailpipe, museum spokesman Dion Fabrizio said.
“The only thing you have happening is taking water to generate hydrogen, then using that and changing it back to water,” Fabrizio said. “That’s the fascinating thing about it. And it’s the most abundant element in the universe.”
Fabrizio said Cerf and others at the museum are hoping the technology can get a foothold in Florida as it has in California.
Hydrogen fuel cells aren’t new. NASA used them in space in the early 1960s to produce electricity and water for astronauts. But when it comes to public knowledge and acceptance, hydrogen is far behind electric battery powered vehicles, said Oscar Pardinas, regional sales manager for ElDorado National-California which builds hydrogen-fueled buses.
“Battery cars and battery buses have taken the stage as being sexy, being attractive and easy," Pardinas said. “But what people haven’t taken into account is the limitation of the technology.”
Pardinas said battery-powered buses require charging for several hours at a station and can only go about half the distance on a single charge as hydrogen buses can go on one fueling. Hydrogen fuel cells tend to be better for larger transit fleets with longer routes, he said.
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But transit agencies nationwide have been quicker to adapt battery powered options, including Pinellas County’s transit authority. The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority has two electric buses in its fleet with four more on the way. Hillsborough’s transit agency is planning a pilot program with 10 electric buses.
Representatives of both Tampa Bay agencies said they are interested in exploring options but don’t have any plans to add hydrogen-fueled buses at this time. Still, they sent staffers to Tuesday’s demonstration to have a look.
The buses carry hydrogen as a compressed gas in tanks. The fuel cell turns the hydrogen into electricity, powering the bus and emitting about half a cup of water per mile.
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The Stark Area Regional Transit Authority in Ohio, which has one of the largest hydrogen fleets in the country, sent one of its buses to St. Petersburg for display during Tuesday’s event. CEO Kirt Conrad said the agency currently has seven hydrogen buses with 10 more on the way.
The Ohio agency purchased its buses and fueling station mostly with a combination of multiple small grants.
“It seems like it came from 30 million different grants, because there isn’t anybody who is going to write you a big check,” Conrad said. “So you’ve got to kind of cobble together things and really work with your state and federal government.”
But Conrad said the point of entry is much lower than it was three years ago, which could be a benefit for agencies looking to explore hydrogen fuel cells for their fleets.
Florida Representative Jennifer Webb, D-Gulfport, attended the panel Tuesday to learn more about the science behind hydrogen-fueled transit.
“I represent all of the beach communities, and I think all solutions that would reduce carbon emissions and make sure we can stay in our community as long as possible are worth exploring," Webb said.
She said she was expecting the cost to be higher and was surprised to hear that the price of a hydrogen bus is similar to an electric bus, depending on subsidies and different markets.
The average diesel bus costs about $500,000, and battery-powered electric buses cost around $750,000.
Speakers Tuesday said a hydrogen bus rings in at around $1.3 million. But subsidies in some communities could bring that cost to $750,000 to $850,0000.
California is leading the country in pursuing hydrogen-fueled transit options and first started selling hydrogen fuel in 2015. The state has since opened 40 hydrogen fueling stations, according to the California Fuel Cell Partnership, with the goal of completing 100 throughout the state.
“You’re going to see it all start moving from the West in this direction,” Pardinas said.