Santa Cruz Metro recently made the largest single purchase of hydrogen buses in the country. Electric battery power dominates the zero-emission transportation sector, but the county opted for hydrogen in part to tackle the challenges posed by the region’s hilly terrain. The decision comes with its fair share of risks and barriers, most significantly the high cost of hydrogen.
As Mike Rotkin tells it, until recently, hydrogen never crossed his mind for powering public transit buses. And, as a regional transportation commissioner and a member of the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District board of directors, Rotkin is tasked to think about these things.
Electric battery power dominated zero-emission transportation discussions, in both public transit circles and the personal car market. Investment seemed to leave costly hydrogen behind as global attention turned toward electric vehicles and the falling costs of charging them.
Last year, Metro received a federal grant to buy three electric buses for the 17 route, which take commuters over the hill into San Jose and Silicon Valley. Metro had its sights set on buses from Chinese company BYD (though they are manufactured in the U.S.), which Rotkin (who also writes on politics for Lookout’s Community Voices section) referred to as “the best electric buses money could buy for our needs.” However, before putting millions of dollars down, a test drive was in order.
Metro filled a bus with sandbags to give it the full weight of its capacity, and sent it winding through the steep grades and notorious curves of Highway 17.
“We couldn’t get the bus to get over the hill at 50 mph, and once it got there, it didn’t have enough charge to get back,” Rotkin told me. The bus would need to charge for hours before it could return to Santa Cruz. Metro’s leadership understood another solution was needed.
More than a year later, on Sept. 22, Metro unanimously voted to move forward with an $87.4 million purchase of 57 hydrogen fuel-cell electric buses, the largest single such purchase of hydrogen buses in the country. Almost all of the money for the purchase came through state and federal grants, with only about $900,000 of local money spent. The move signaled a new vision for Santa Cruz County’s zero-emission public transit system.
A historic, nation-leading purchase in which Santa Cruz County’s bus system pushed toward the bleeding edge of zero-emission transit sounds great in headlines. But why was our county so much more bullish on hydrogen than, well, anywhere else? Why hydrogen? And why in Santa Cruz County?
Michael Tree, Metro’s chief executive officer, says many factors come into play, from cost to efficiency. But first, what are we talking about when we talk about hydrogen buses?
These buses are powered by hydrogen fuel cells through a process in which a fuel tank is filled with compressed hydrogen molecules, which store the energy used to propel the vehicle. The compressed hydrogen is fed through a fuel cell, which converts it to electricity. Battery electric buses, by contrast, store their energy in several heavy rechargeable battery packs.
Tree said this gives hydrogen buses a fourfold advantage over electric battery buses. Hydrogen buses have a longer range, about 300 to 350 miles per refueling, versus 175 to 200 miles per charge for an electric battery. Since hydrogen buses need to refuel only by filling their tanks up with hydrogen gas, they take about 15 minutes to fuel; battery electric buses can take several hours to recharge. And since hydrogen buses have only a hydrogen tank and a fuel cell, they can be as much as 11,000 pounds lighter than a bus lined with heavy electric batteries, making their travels less taxing on roads and bridges.
And, especially on locals’ minds lately — hydrogen-fueled buses will not amount to useless piles of metal if a natural disaster knocks out the electricity. Tree says hydrogen fueling stations will still be able to fuel buses using a generator, and buses have historically been an important tool in helping Santa Cruzans escape the perils of floods, earthquakes and wildfires.
Still, electric buses are far more popular in public transit’s pursuit of zero emission. According to clean transportation organization CALSTART, in 2022, U.S. roads carried 5,269 battery electric buses, compared to 211 hydrogen buses.
So what is different about Santa Cruz County that the local metro system just ordered more than a quarter of the entire nation’s 2022 hydrogen fleet? Well, it goes back to Rotkin’s anecdote: topography.
“Electric buses make more sense if you are on totally flat ground, but in hilly Santa Cruz County, battery electric buses do not work so well,” Rotkin told me. “No one makes an electric bus that has enough power to take a fully loaded electric bus over the hill at the speed limit.”
Rotkin said the country finds itself in a moment where transit agencies are cutting back on their services as ridership falls, leading to the sale of buses and elimination of routes. Santa Cruz County, he said, finds itself in a time of expansion, with Metro doubling down on its bus system to increase frequency and ridership.
Despite the rah-rah, this doubling down on hydrogen does come with undeniable risk. Right now, hydrogen fuel is expensive and far from ubiquitous, two barriers that have kept hydrogen fuel cell vehicles for personal use largely out of the market.
Tree told me that Metro, in the early stages, would be looking at about $9 to $13 per gallon equivalent of compressed hydrogen fuel. In California, diesel rose to an average price of about $6.43 per gallon as of Sept. 28. Tree was quick to note, however, that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles get more than twice as much mileage out of a gallon-equivalent of hydrogen as a gallon of diesel, evening out the overall cost per mile.
Many also see hydrogen as the fossil fuel industry’s attempt to stay relevant in the zero-emissions revolution. Right now, hydrogen is considered “brown hydrogen” because of the carbon footprint left by producing the fuel, which is made almost entirely by natural gas. Green hydrogen, which is hydrogen fuel produced and delivered with zero emissions, remains cost-prohibitive.
The French city of Montpellier, roughly the size of Santa Cruz County, recently canceled an order of 50 hydrogen buses because it felt electric was the more cost-effective route toward its emissions ambitions.
Tree said the industry expects to get hydrogen down to about $5 per gallon over the next few years. However, Beverly DesChaux, president of the National Electric Auto Association’s Santa Cruz chapter, remains skeptical.
“The promises that they make for development of so-called green hydrogen is so unbelievably cost-prohibitive that it is foolish in itself,” DesChaux wrote in an email. She argued that hydrogen “is completely unnecessary for transportation” and that electric “has it handled.”
Making hydrogen cost-efficient will be largely dependent on continued federal buy-in and California’s ability to become a hydrogen hub, with heavy investment into the production of hydrogen fuel. The state has applied for a grant of more than $1 billion from the feds to become one of the country’s leading hydrogen fuel producers. The U.S. Department of Energy will announce which states won the funding in October, Tree said.
“I totally anticipate that with the forward thinking here, California will be part of the nation’s hydrogen hubs,” Tree told me. “California is the absolute leader on zero-emission transportation and wants to be a leader on hydrogen.”
Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.