Viewpoint: Hydrogen buses could be the future 

By Tom Rolfes 

Here’s an idea – make the new Island Explorer buses hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEV’s).  

If the park is to invest in 21 new buses, for $5.9M over the next five years, why not make them run on hydrogen generated from excess solar energy from the solar development over the island? 

These engines take hydrogen and convert it into power for the vehicle, leaving only water as an emission. FCEV’s are being used right now out West in cars, trucks, boats and forklifts and in trains in Japan. 

There are hydrogen refueling stations all along the West Coast. It takes about five minutes to fill up and the cars have mileages of around 400 miles per tank. These refueling stations are beginning to be found on the East Coast and they exist as far north as Portland, I think. 

While latest data/thinking is that there isn’t really a “climate emergency, that’s unlikely to cause many on the island, ACTT and recent town organizationsto fold up and walk away, especially as many already have solar panels cutting back on their electric bills. 

Here is how it might work. First, there is a need to learn what the current range of an Island Explorer bus on a full tank of propane is. These buses need to refill at a special location at some frequency now, so the hydrogen buses would need to at least match that capacity on a daily or whatever basis. 

Next, there is the question of how much hydrogen is needed per day from a refueling station. The system can start up with a rental station, which exist until demand is enough to put in a self-generating facility. As mentioned, as interest increases for passenger vehicles and heavyduty trucking firms to use FCEV’s to come to the island up I-95, there will be need for more hydrogen stations. Amazon is using hydrogen FCEV’s in their delivery trucks and in their forklifts. 

Now, how to get the hydrogen. The method used is called electrolysis and it involves putting an electric current across a fuel cell with water to produce hydrogen and oxygen at the opposite poles. The technology has been around a long time, but it has been refined so that the power demands, while fairly large, do not have to be at a constant level to make the system work.  

So, take the solar power generated by all the panels on the island and use the excess power at a given time to generate hydrogen. 

This would be in lieu of selling or returning the excess power back to the power company/grid. At the moment, solar generators sell the excess power back to the power company at the price they pay for residential power. As solar increases on the island, this will change. It has everywhere else in the country as solar has grown. 

The one aspect of this plan that has to work is the price paid back to solar generators. The power will need to be sold back at the wholesale price the utility company pays for its supply. As electrolysis takes a lot of power, it has to be made available at a low cost. Using excess solar to generate hydrogen is one way to do that, once the rate is low enough. Solar owners do not have to give it away, but they can sell it to the hydrogen generation unit, and FCEV owners/buses would buy the hydrogen at a competitive price to fossil fuels. 

The next step would seem to be to organize a team to work out these details with representatives from the park, Versant, the hydrogen equipment suppliers, ACTT, etc., and determine the pace of development. But it will be necessary because as solar increases, it does have an impact on the grid and reliability. 

Tom Rolfes lives in Somesville and Cincinnati, Ohio 

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