Building better buses

AC Transit pushes hydrogen fuel cells as oil companies pull back
Chevron helped greenwash its image by supporting AC Transit's hydrogen fuel cell program before pulling out this September

By Adam Lesser

GREEN CITY To hear Jaimie Levin talk is to understand that his cause is larger than just promoting alternative fuels for public transportation. "We either pay the tax ourselves or we pay the tax of sending money to the Middle East," he said as we walked through the noisy AC Transit bus yard in East Oakland. "There's a human cost of lives lost in a foreign war."

AC Transit uses 6.5 million gallons of diesel per year. As the agency's director of alternative fuels policy, it's Levin's job to lower that number. He has experimented with biodiesel and gas-electric hybrid buses. But the passion that consumes him these days is hydrogen. He has spent the last 10 years testing and deploying three hydrogen fuel cell buses for AC Transit, and he's ready for more.

The first of 12 new hydrogen fuel cell buses begin arriving from Belgium at the end of April, doubling the number of fuel cell buses operating in the United States. They will run on multiple lines, including the 57, 18, and the NL transbay route, which runs between San Francisco and Oakland.

Levin promotes a mix of energy sources, but he argues that hydrogen is the best way to go, even if there's a big near-term problem: the price of a hydrogen fuel cell bus. The new buses cost $2.5 million each compared to a standard diesel bus, which runs $400,000. Levin describes the buses as research vehicles and works with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to monitor their performance.

"It's not cheap. We understand that. These are still hand-made. We're talking about making less than 20 vehicles," he says. Levin is hopeful that if orders for hydrogen fuel cell buses could reach even 200, the cost of the fuel cells would come down by 45 percent. Levin has secured 16 different grants from federal, state, and regional agencies, ranging from the Federal Transportation Administration to the California Air Resources Board, to cover the $57 million program. The use of outside funds has been critical at a time when AC Transit is cutting service to deal with its budget shortfall.

The cost of the hydrogen fuel itself has caused some to ask if it's a viable alternative to gasoline. A kilogram of hydrogen, which is equivalent to a gallon of gas in terms of energy content, typically costs $7-$8. But hydrogen fuel cells are twice as energy efficient as internal combustion engines.

AC Transit currently gets its hydrogen fuel from its own production facility that it built with Chevron, which is regularly criticized by environmental and human rights groups for everything from pollution to obscene profits to support for despotic regimes. "Chevron Hydrogen" billboards plaster the bus yard, and the logos are yellow and baby blue, a noticeable difference compared to the traditional blue and red Chevron insignia. There's an ecofriendly, sunny quality to the branding.

But come September, Chevron will exit its collaboration with AC Transit, which will begin purchasing its hydrogen from a Linde plant in Southern California. Part of the reason is that the Chevron-designed system does not have the capacity to produce hydrogen for 12 buses. Industry watchers note that oil companies have scaled back initial forays into hydrogen, perhaps not wanting to facilitate the transition from fossil fuels.

"The big issue is the infrastructure side. What's cooling it off right now is how far the oil companies have backed off," said Tim Lipman, codirector of the UC Berkeley Transportation Sustainability Research Center. "If you're an oil company, you've got to figure you're going to lose money for a while — and you're making tons of money in your existing business. It's not broken right now. They don't see an advantage of being the first to market. We're not running out of oil."