A hydrogen fuel cell bus from Minnesota-based New Flyer.
Opinion from Community Voices

Here’s some good news: The Santa Cruz bus system is aiming for zero carbon by 2036

The Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District is expecting $66.7 million dollars in state and federal grants and Volkswagen settlement money that will allow the district to move more quickly to a completely carbon-free transportation solution. This is the largest purchase of hydrogen cell buses in the nation’s history. Lookout columnist Mike Rotkin, who is a member of the Regional Transportation Commission, breaks down the numbers and explains the significance.

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The Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District board of directors received some welcome news at its August meeting: It is getting $66.7 million in state and federal funding to create a fleet of 57 new, hydrogen fuel cell buses over the next 18 months.

Why should we care about this?

Well, considering between 40% and 60% of greenhouse gasses come from the transportation sector of our economy, I’d say it’s fairly important we start cutting sooner rather than later. And this will be the largest to-date national purchase of hydrogen fuel cell buses.

It’s exciting for Santa Cruz and for Metro to be taking this step.

Metro currently operates a little over 100 buses on 24 fixed routes providing inter- and intra-city service throughout the county, along with over-the-hill service to San Jose. The district also operates on-demand Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant or paratransit buses throughout its service area.

Originally, the entire fleet ran on diesel fuel, but about a decade ago, the district began a transition to compressed natural gas (CNG) buses that are much cleaner for the environment than diesel, but which still produce carbon emissions. Now, Metro is looking to move to carbon-free electric battery and hydrogen fuel cell buses.

This funding offers a jump-start.

And it helps Metro stop taking one step back for every two steps forward. Let me explain.

Until recently, electric and hydrogen fuel cell buses were more expensive than CNG buses, and there was limited funding for new buses. So Metro had a 20-year purchase schedule for new buses that occasionally called for buying additional CNG buses just to keep enough buses on the road to meet service demands. The grant money will stop that cycle and advance the timetable of getting carbon-free by at least a decade. Also, the price gap between CNG and electric and hydrogen fuel cell buses is fortunately now narrowing dramatically, which will also ease this problem.

The grant money for the 57 new hydrogen fuel cell buses breaks down like this:

  • $21 million in Federal Transit Administration 2023 competitive bus funding — the federal government will fund up to 85% of the cost of replacement. buses that are over 14 years old (most of Metro’s fleet is much older than that).
  • $13.6 million in state Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program funding.
  • $4.8 million in Federal Highway Administration funding.

In addition to this $39.4 million, Metro will likely soon receive $27.3 million for new buses from the federal government’s settlement with Volkswagen over the auto company’s admission that it had been designing vehicles to cheat on smog tests.

This $66.7 million total will allow us to more quickly convert our Metro bus fleet to zero carbon emission. And the local funding contribution to this effort will be only 1.1% of the overall effort.

Metro is planning to accept these grants at its Sept. 22 board meeting and commit to the purchase of 57 buses (at over $1 million per bus) from Minnesota-based New Flyer, Inc. over the next 18 months. This purchase will represent over half of the Metro’s fixed-route buses.

Metro now plans to have all service in Watsonville carbon-free by 2027 and the entire system carbon-free by 2036, or perhaps as early as 2034.

After the purchase of these hydrogen cell buses, Metro plans to buy a mix of electric battery buses and hydrogen buses to complete its full fleet of fixed-route buses.

You might wonder how Metro has managed to get these grants. The answer is fourfold. First, our district is very careful in how it handles its finances. For example, the most recent federal audit found no significant exceptions to policy or any need for correction.

Second, Metro has the good fortune to have an outstanding capital planning and grants program manager named Wondimu Mengistu, who has apparently figured out how to write exactly what grant givers want to hear.

Officials from a variety of government bodies and agencies were on hand in downtown Santa Cruz for Monday's announcement.
Officials from a variety of government bodies and agencies gathered at Santa Cruz Metro’s downtown hub to celebrate a state grant.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Third, Santa Cruz Metro is supported by a much higher level of local tax support than most transit districts in the country — demonstrating community support for our agency and its services. The district also recovers a higher percentage of costs from rider revenue than most districts in the nation.

And, finally, Metro has active, well-respected and effective elected officials at the state and federal level who advocate for us.

Success aside, it’s important to explain Metro’s decision to purchase hydrogen fuel cell buses rather than battery-powered electric buses. Although there are some applications in which battery-powered electric buses are more efficient, Metro has several already and plans to purchase more in the future.

There are several advantages of hydrogen fuel cells over electric batteries for bus operations.

Currently, no one sells an electric battery bus that will carry at least 40 passengers over the hill to San Jose, while going at least 50 to 55 mph to keep up with traffic and still have enough charge left to make the return trip to Santa Cruz. New Flyer already has a hydrogen fuel cell bus that can do this. The company also produces both 40-foot buses for inter- and intra-city service in Santa Cruz and 60-foot articulated buses (the ones that bend in the middle) to carry the heavier passenger loads required to meet UC Santa Cruz service needs.

Both hydrogen fuel cell buses and electric cell buses run off of batteries, but the former charge their batteries with energy produced from a chemical reaction with hydrogen that is stored on the bus, while the electric buses charge their batteries at electric charging stations at various locations throughout the county. Charging electric batteries for buses can take far more time than the 10 minutes necessary to fuel a hydrogen fuel cell bus.

It’s important to note that during emergencies such as earthquakes, flooding and fires, electrical charging stations might become unreliable — at precisely a moment when buses are essential — as was the case in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the CZU fires and the recent flooding in Pajaro.

Electric buses are useless if they can’t be charged.

Both battery electric buses and hydrogen fuel cell buses are only truly green or carbon- free solutions depending upon the source of the energy for their charging. If the electricity that charges batteries is produced at power plants run on fossil fuels, as is currently often the case for ostensibly carbon-free electric vehicles, they are still contributing to greenhouse gasses that cause climate change.

The same is true of hydrogen fuel cell buses. Hydrogen is created by putting electricity into water to split apart the oxygen and hydrogen atoms. If the energy used to create the hydrogen that fuels the buses comes from fossil fuel sources, hydrogen cell technology could also contribute to greenhouse gas production.

Fortunately, as the Metro board heard at its August meeting, there are currently projects that will produce enough truly green hydrogen from solar, wind and other renewable sources for our fleet.

Finally, there remains a concern (expressed by one member of the public at the August Metro meeting, but no doubt shared by others) that hydrogen might be a dangerous, particularly explosive fuel. There are few of us who have not seen the famous footage of the 1937 Hindenburg disaster, when a hydrogen airship exploded to great loss of life.

It turns out that hydrogen is lighter than air and rises. The flames going down to the ground in the Hindenburg disaster were not burning hydrogen, but the metallic paint that covered the shell of the airship. Hydrogen is an explosive fuel, but no more dangerous than the petrol we have put in our vehicles for over a century now. Like any explosive fuel, it needs to be transported and stored carefully and under safety conditions that are well understood.

So, it is very exciting that our Santa Cruz Metro Transit District should soon be making a huge leap forward in its efforts to help produce a carbon-free alternative for transportation in our community.

Of course, none of this means much if people in Santa Cruz County don’t start making more use of our public transit system.

Rather than blaming the public for not choosing public transit over the private automobile, Metro has serious plans to make our system more convenient and attractive for users, as it is in other cities. That includes adding more frequent buses on major county corridors, free rides for youth, digital access to bus schedules and real-time progress, and faster direct routes to work and school. More about that in an upcoming column.

Mike Rotkin has lived in Santa Cruz since 1969 and teaches at UCSC. He is a five-time former mayor of the City of Santa Cruz. Read his previous columns for Lookout here.