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Some Boulder buses may one day run on hydrogen

NREL's Hyundai Nexo, a hydrogen-powered car, on display at the recent forum on hydrogen vehicles in Boulder.
Courtesy of Boulder Transit Connections
NREL's Hyundai Nexo, a hydrogen-powered car, on display at the recent forum on hydrogen vehicles in Boulder.

As battery-powered electric vehicles continue to make inroads in our transportation system, renewable transit advocates are also looking at hydrogen fuel cells as an additional option.

Many of them gathered recently at a forum in Boulder hosted at Via Mobility Services, which provides transit to people with limited mobility.

The nonprofit is in the process of converting much of its fleet to electric buses.

They're also looking at hydrogen vehicles as another option.

Sam Fuqua spoke with Buford Barr, Chief Operating Officer for New Day Hydrogen, who was one of the presenters at the conference,

Sam Fuqua: When we talk about hydrogen fuel cell vehicles versus battery-electric vehicles, is it one versus the other?

Buford Barr: We don't believe so. In the popular press, it tends to come off as an either or. We look at it as they are very complementary to each other. Really, it depends on how you use the vehicle as to which fuel, which energy source, aligns best with your uses.

Sam Fuqua: Where is the alignment for the hydrogen fuel cell in terms of the whole transit picture? Is it individual car owners or is it a transit agency?

Buford Barr: We see the commercial fleets — think trucks — as being the early movers into that space. Transit agencies most definitely, but the commercial fleets being those early movers.

We really see the light duty, the individual car owner, we see them coming into the market late, simply because it's the number of stations — if I have one station in the entirety of the state of Colorado, it doesn't make sense for you as a private vehicle owner to go buy one of those vehicles.

Sam Fuqua: But a transit agency or a trucking firm where the vehicles leave a central facility and come back at the end of the day?

Buford Barr: Exactly, we call them tethered fleets, where they're basically going out doing the work that they need to do and then coming back to the barn at the end of the day. That aligns well with what we're trying to do right now. Eventually, we plan on having enough of these stations where it doesn't necessarily have to be that out-and-back, but definitely, for the first couple, that's what we're envisioning.

Sam Fuqua: So how does it work, the hydrogen fuel cell?

Buford Barr: So the hydrogen fuel cell, basically what it is, we all know how the internal combustion works, you know you get that spark, you get that ignition that drives down the piston, turns the crankshaft. That's not what happens in a fuel cell. A fuel cell is actually an electrochemical process.

So we're taking hydrogen, and we're recombining it with oxygen. The only emission, direct emission, from those vehicles is water vapor. But in that process, we're able to strip off an electron. So that ends up being your current, that ends up being what ultimately drives the vehicle.

Sam Fuqua: A motor, like in an electric vehicle?

Buford Barr: It's exactly the same motor that you would see in a battery-electric vehicle, yes.

Sam Fuqua: My layperson's brain says hydrogen is extremely flammable, so that makes me nervous.

Buford Barr: So hydrogen, you know, just like any energy carrier, definitely, you know, can be dangerous under the wrong circumstances. So you have to treat it with respect.

But a lot of the physical characteristics of hydrogen actually tended to be a lot safer than what we're used to in the diesel and gasoline engines.

For example, hydrogen is basically 14 times lighter than air. So if you were to be in an accident, if you were to actually puncture the tank, it would actually dissipate up extremely quickly.

Sam Fuqua: And what is the role of state governments in incentivizing and moving this kind of transition forward? I know California is a lot further ahead than Colorado or pretty much any place.

Buford Barr: So California, and really it's the federal government and the state governments kind of working together in regards to that.

California's put a lot of money into the establishment of hydrogen-fueling infrastructure, which is a good thing. They've been focused predominantly on light-duty passenger vehicles. That's not how we see it really working, you know, in the rest of the U.S. We really see that being more of a commercial fleet orientation.

But to go to your original question, as far as what can they do? Really, it's that, you know, any sort of new technology needs help standing up. And that's where we see the federal and the state governments playing a significant role, specifically with our customers, allowing them to basically address the delta in the cost between where a fuel-cell electric vehicle costs today versus where a diesel vehicle costs.

So the federal and the state governments coming in and being able to basically push down that delta so that there's a minimal cost impact for our customers.

Sam Fuqua: How far is the gap right now? How big?

Buford Barr: Unfortunately, it depends on the vehicle. The larger vehicles have a larger gap. You know, the passenger vehicles that you see, I've mentioned the Toyota Mirai several times, you know, that really is in line with what you're paying for battery-electric vehicles at this point. So it's a very similar cost delta that you see on the battery-electric side.

 Sam Fuqua: And electric-battery vehicles are more efficient than hydrogen fuel cells?

Buford Barr: Yeah, so the efficiency really is driven off of any time you change the form of energy, you lose energy in that process. So battery electrics, once you've actually created the electricity, they're not changing the form of that energy until such time as you are changing it into mechanical energy, so they're very efficient vehicles.

They have challenges just like any technology has, but they're very efficient. They are more efficient than hydrogen vehicles. But the flip side of that is hydrogen can fuel up very quickly, very analogous to your diesel vehicles today, as opposed to the multiple hours that it takes to charge a battery electric.

And you get similar ranges to what you see today with diesel vehicles with hydrogen, whereas the battery electrics tend to be shorter-range vehicles.

If you think about it, you've got the fuel cell, you have a tank of hydrogen, so very analogous to your gasoline fuel tank, so you have a tank of hydrogen that is basically holding your energy. It is feeding that into the fuel cell, which is converting it back from hydrogen into electricity.

Sam Fuqua: The next step for New Day Hydrogen is a facility?

Buford Barr: Correct, that's what we're working on right now. We've got a station we're trying to develop right now in the Globeville neighborhood, just north of downtown Denver. I don't like the term disadvantaged community, I think it's a transportation-impacted community, but it's a community that's been very open, very receptive to what we're trying to do.

So we're working very closely with them and trying to get that established.

One point I'd like to get across to your listeners is the fact that, what we're trying to do with hydrogen, we can do that now. We're not waiting, we don't need an evolution in the technology. We're ready to do it right now.

And really, we need, you know, we're working down that pathway. We're hoping to get our first station up here in the relatively near future, and really start bringing hydrogen in, bringing that optionality to the commercial fleet so that they can make a decision as far as what works best for how they use their vehicles.

Copyright 2023 KGNU.

This story was shared via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including Aspen Public Radio.

Sam Fuqua is an award-winning radio journalist who has worked in public media since 1990, including over 20 years on the staff of KGNU, the community public radio station serving Boulder/Denver. He co-hosts KGNU's quarterly call-in program focused on conflict resolution.