AC Transit's Hydrogen Boondoggle 

The agency plans to spend $28 million on hydrogen fuel-cell buses even as the Obama administration says the technology is too costly and impractical.

Earlier this month, the Obama administration all but killed the federal government's hydrogen fuel program. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a former UC Berkeley professor and Nobel Prize winner, believes hydrogen vehicles are still decades away from practical development, primarily because they're far too costly. Chu, instead, wants to focus scarce federal dollars on developing electric vehicles and hybrids powered by biofuels. Yet despite the administration's decision, AC Transit is forging ahead with its extremely expensive hydrogen bus program. In fact, the cash-strapped agency is about to buy twelve fuel-cell buses for $28 million — a price that could pay for more than 55 new hybrid buses.

But AC Transit isn't the only one to blame for this hydrogen boondoggle. The California Air Resources Board also deserves criticism for effectively mandating AC Transit's costly program. In fact, starting in 2011, the air resources board may require that up to 15 percent of AC Transit's bus purchases be expensive hydrogen buses. The mandate is part of the board's long-term plan to greatly reduce tailpipe emissions throughout the state.

However, the air resources board is now beginning to rethink its mandates. First adopted in 2006, the zero-emission bus regulations were based on an effort to curb air pollution. But now that the state's emphasis has changed to reducing greenhouse gases as quickly as possible to limit the coming global warming crisis, the board is considering whether to relax, or even eliminate, its current requirements. One simple fix would be to require that transit agencies buy hybrid buses because they are affordable and can cut greenhouse emissions by about 33 percent. The air resources board is holding two public workshops on the issue this week. However, at this point it is unclear what the board will do, in part because AC Transit, one of the largest transportation agencies in the state, remains gung-ho for hydrogen.

So why is AC Transit still hot for a technology that the Obama administration and other environmentalists now think is uncool? Some critics note that AC Transit's hydrogen program is tied up with its obsession for Belgian-bus manufacturer Van Hool. As this newspaper has previously reported, AC Transit has maintained an exclusive contract with Van Hool since 2002, and has purchased hundreds of the Belgian buses at a time when the agency has struggled financially and despite the fact that Van Hools cost more than some of their American-made counterparts. Agency officials have staunchly defended the buses, while at the same time taking repeated junkets to Europe on the taxpayers' dime.

AC Transit began purchasing hydrogen fuel-cell buses from Van Hool in 2005. The first three buses cost $3.16 million each. By comparison, a hybrid-diesel bus sold by Hayward-based manufacturer Gillig currently lists for about $550,000, according to Gillig Vice President Brian McLeod. A regular diesel bus costs about $350,000 to $400,000; most of AC Transit's Van Hool bus fleet are regular diesels. The first three hydrogen buses that AC Transit bought from Van Hool were considered an experimental project that was effectively mandated by the air resources board. The board considers the next twelve hydrogen buses from Van Hool, which will cost about $2.25 million apiece, to be the second phase of AC Transit's research and development program.

The air resources board mandates are part of its zero-emission bus program for large transit agencies — that is, those with at least 200 buses in their fleet. Agencies can meet the mandates three ways: First, by installing electric trolleys. San Francisco's Muni has already met all of the air board's requirements because of its longtime electric trolley system, according to Anna Gromis, an air board staffer. The second way is by buying hydrogen fuel-cell buses. And the third is by purchasing battery-powered electric buses. Los Angeles is taking this route, although battery-powered electrics are not considered suitable for agencies such as AC Transit because they don't perform well on hills and can't go for long distances without recharging. LA plans to use the battery-operated buses on short, flat routes during commute hours, said John Addison at CleanFleetReport.com.

Bus agencies can meet the air board's initial mandates by partnering with each other. AC Transit is the lead partner and chief financier of a consortium with Golden Gate Transit in Marin County, Valley Transportation Authority in Santa Clara County, and SamTrans in San Mateo County. However, the agencies will have to begin purchasing zero-emission buses on their own, en masse, beginning in 2011 — unless the air resources board relaxes its standards.

Some environmentalists and bus manufactures contend that it makes much more sense for the air board to switch from a zero-emissions requirement to a low-carbon-emissions one. While it's true that hydrogen fuel-cell buses emit no greenhouse gases, their huge expense makes them impractical for widespread adoption. As a result, they're decades away from affecting global warming, and the requirement that bus agencies begin buying them in bulk two years from now is a colossal waste of taxpayer money.

By contrast, a switch to hybrid diesel buses could make an immediate impact on greenhouse emissions because hybrids are affordable and already commonplace in the industry. According to Addison of CleanFleetReport.com, hybrids represent one quarter of new bus purchases in the United States. "The question is: 'Does it make sense to follow a zero-emissions path at all?'" said Addison, who also wrote the book Save Gas, Save the Planet. "At this point, hybrids make a great deal of sense for public transportation."

And it's not as if the air resources board hasn't relaxed its mandates before. Earlier this decade, the board stepped back from its zero-emission standard for cars, light trucks, and SUVs and gave low-emissions credits to hybrids, recognizing that zero-emission vehicles are costly and that hybrid technology is affordable and already established.

Hybrids, in fact, could be especially effective for AC Transit, because the agency operates in a mostly dense, urban area with lots of bus stops. That's an advantage for hybrids because they can switch over to their electric batteries when idling, and the batteries recharge when applying the brakes. "Generally, the industry has agreed that hydrogen fuel cell technology is just not realistic, and they've dropped it in favor of hybrids," said McLeod of Gillig, which has been making hybrid diesel buses since 2001.

But AC Transit is bucking the trend, and still believes that hydrogen is the wave of the near future. In fact, the AC Transit board voted last Wednesday 4-2-1 to approve a $1 million no-bid contract with a lithium-ion battery maker to partner with Van Hool in developing the twelve hydrogen fuel cell buses. The only board members to vote against the deal were Elsa Ortiz and Greg Harper (board member Joe Wallace abstained). Harper was visibly frustrated by the idea that AC Transit was plowing ahead with its expensive hydrogen program when the Obama administration was basically abandoning theirs. "If we're going to have a $2 million or $2.25 million bus — that's just as useless to us as if it didn't work," he said. "I think our project now is in trouble."

But the board majority brushed off those concerns. Jaimie Levin, who heads up the agency's hydrogen bus program, is one of the agency's biggest cheerleaders for Van Hools, and has traveled around the world at public expense to find the right battery, said at the meeting that the air resources board considers AC Transit's program to be "the gold standard." That may be true, but it also should be pointed out that neither Levin nor any other AC Transit official noted at the meeting that the air resources board was thinking about relaxing its requirements. Nor was their any recognition that if AC Transit, a major player in the state's transportation world, decided to park its hydrogen program and ask the board to set aside its mandate, it could help save the planet, while saving public funds at the same time.

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