The redwood curtain is poised to start lifting, at least a bit, courtesy of the Schatz Energy Lab and the Humboldt Transit Authority. If all goes as planned, by 2024, the HTA will be running state-of-the-art, hydrogen fuel cell electric buses to Ukiah. There, connections can be made to Mendocino County's transit system, and from there to the SMART railroad station in Sonoma County's Cloverdale, from which passengers can access the entire Bay Area.
Peter Lehman, one of the founders of the Schatz Energy Lab, has always been fascinated by the promise of hydrogen as a non-polluting fuel source. At an Aug. 15 seminar sponsored by a consortium of local environmental organizations, and attended by 55 members of the public, he described how this low-greenhouse-gas emitting fuel is going to power 11 new buses.
Hydrogen is currently produced using natural gas, but in the future renewable energy promises to make hydrogen a zero-emissions fuel.
Paid for by a $38.7 million grant from the state's Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program and $26.4 million from multiple state and private sources, HTA will build a hydrogen fueling station at its corporation yard on W Street in Eureka. The hydrogen will be used to power onboard fuel cells, which, paired with batteries, will be capable of running full-size buses up steep hills at 65 mph. Like super-powered Priuses, the buses will be powered with a combination of chemical energy and batteries to run a vehicle without burning gasoline.
The fuel-cell project will also be paired with the EaRTH transit center planned for downtown Eureka, which seeks to provide badly-needed new housing with readily available transit. The buses will fuel up at the HTA corp yard and pick up passengers at the transit center. Approved by the Eureka City Council in February, the concept is to transform the parking lot behind the Lost Coast Brewery & Cafe into a plaza between two multi-story buildings. The lower floors of the buildings will serve as a transportation station, not only for HTA but also for Greyhound and Amtrak buses, and possibly ridesharing services such as Lyft and Uber. The upper floors will contain rent-controlled apartments, which will be reserved for low-income residents, students and visiting medical personnel.
The transit center, the new buses and the hydrogen fueling facility are all being paid for by the same grant and can be seen as three legs of a stool. The hope is that by having convenient public transportation paired with low-cost housing, the need for private cars will be diminished, moving Humboldt closer to meeting its state-mandated requirement to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The projects will also allow HTA to continue operations after the California Air Resources Board's ban on the sale of diesel-operated buses takes effect in 2030, while giving Humboldt residents low-cost links to Santa Rosa and points south.
"I've been working in renewable energy for 45 years," said Lehman. "It's been known for a long time that the planet is heating up — that's just basic physics and chemistry — due largely to emissions of carbon dioxide, and that to stop it we need to get off fossil fuels."
But he said he was surprised at how quickly climate change has manifested.
"It's a more dire emergency than what we imagined," he said. "Transportation is going to be one of the hardest nuts to crack ... it accounts for more than a third of our greenhouse gas emissions. ... We've got to get people out of cars and we've got to get cars that are running cleaner. ... We've got to electrify transportation."
HTA General Manager Greg Pratt had contacted Lehman, knowing that transit agencies all over California would be hustling to purchase zero-emission vehicles before the end of the decade, and hoping to get ahead of the curve.
Lehman said they decided to focus on fuel cell electric buses because they are a low-emission technology and a better fit for Humboldt than battery-operated electric buses, which only operate well in flat, urban settings with short routes — a far cry from the steep, remote hills of Loleta and Westhaven.
Fuel cell vehicles have a greater range than battery-operated vehicles, getting more than 350 miles on a tank full of hydrogen. And unlike battery-operated vehicles, they take just eight minutes to charge. With the enhanced range of the fuel cell, buses can make the 330-mile round trip between Eureka and Ukiah. (There are presently no opportunities to refuel en route.)
HTA borrowed a New Flyer fuel cell bus from AC Transit, which runs buses in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Although there were many aspects of the New Flyer that Pratt liked, he realized it needed more improvements if it was going to work in Humboldt.
"The bus that New Flyer had available would not have made it," Lehman said, "and New Flyer agreed to engineer a new bus with a larger fuel cell, a larger battery and more hydrogen storage. "
This new type of bus, Lehman noted, could be useful all over America, because many rural transit agencies face similar issues.
Although Schatz operated a small scale electrolyzer for years at the Telonicher Marine Lab in Trinidad, using solar energy to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, HTA will get its hydrogen from a facility owned by Air Products and Chemicals, LLC, in Sacramento, which will also build the fueling station at the HTA corp yard.
Liquid hydrogen is extremely cold — only a few degrees above absolute zero — so the fuel will be trucked into Eureka in cryogenic tanks. It will be stored at the HTA corp yard and transferred into buses as needed.
"The station will also have 'over the fence' fueling that will be a retail hydrogen station" for other hydrogen vehicles, Lehman said, adding these fleets could include UPS, Caltrans vehicles and city of Eureka vehicles.
"The more fuel [HTA] can dispense, the less expensive it is per kilogram," he said.
A kilogram of hydrogen, Lehman explained, has about the same energy as a gallon of diesel. He anticipates the cost of a kilogram of hydrogen would be $9 or $10. A hydrogen bus gets 8 or 9 miles per kilogram, while a diesel bus gets 5 or 6 miles per gallon. So the efficiency of hydrogen is greater, as is the cost.
A modern fuel cell is about 60-percent efficient, Lehman said, whereas a gasoline engine is about 20 percent efficient, with efficiency gauged by weighing how much useful energy is produced against how much energy is put in.
Over the course of a decade, Lehman estimated the fleet of hydrogen buses would save about half a million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
The hydrogen is classified as "gray" because it is produced by tweaking methane, a component of natural gas, releasing carbon dioxide as a by-product. If it were produced from electrolyzing water using renewable energy, it would be called "green," but that option is not currently available on an industrial scale in Northern California. (Lehman hopes to transition to green hydrogen once it is available locally.)
California, he said, has about 45 hydrogen stations, mostly in the Bay Area and the Los Angeles area. This will be the first north of the Bay Area, though another is planned for Santa Rosa. Only a few thousand fuel cell cars exist in California presently, Lehman said.
Other rural counties are also poised to benefit from the program. According to HTA's grant application, "transit riders in adjoining northern counties have a similar service gap and they will also benefit from the new RCX [Redwood Coast Express] service. Through coordination with Redwood Coast Transit (Del Norte) and Trinity Transit, riders in those areas will also gain a convenient connection to the SMART train, Napa and the Bay Area."
Pratt organized the transit agencies in a number of northern California counties into a group called the "Far North Transit Consortium." CARB asked the consortium to put together a plan that would fund a network of hydrogen stations throughout northern California. Air Products identified Redding, Ukiah, Sacramento, Willow Creek and Santa Rosa as good locations for such stations, since they all link to main transportation networks. If successful, much of northern California will eventually be connected by a network of zero-emission buses.
Lehman assured his audience that despite the legacy of the exploding Hindenburg dirigible, hydrogen is no more dangerous than any other concentrated fuel source. It is also non-toxic and lighter than air, he said, so leaks disperse upward into the atmosphere.
Asked about the dangers of local roads, Lehman said his major concern is that if the county's main arteries are closed, whether due to wildfire, landslides or anything else, hydrogen fuel would be unavailable, at least until there's a local facility that can electrolyze hydrogen.
"We have plans for that by having a very large tank," he said. "Hopefully we'll be able to get through any road closure without having to shut the buses down."
However, he added that HTA is also planning to hold onto its diesel buses for the time being, just in case.
Elaine Weinreb (she/her) is a freelance journalist. She tries to re-pay the state of California for giving her a degree in environmental studies and planning (Sonoma State University) at a time when tuition was still affordable.