Canton takes buses to a hydrogen future

June 19, 2023

Stark County has become a leader in the use of hydrogen fuel cells for transportation.

That’s right, deep red Stark County, home to a Marathon Petroleum refinery and a county seat, Canton, that 10 years ago billed itself as the capital of Utica shale drilling.

The county is competing with places like California to be a leading expert on the use of hydrogen to power public buses. And while California has more hydrogen buses, Canton, the small city south of Akron, seems to be keeping pace in terms of expertise.

Representatives of the Stark Area Regional Transit Authority (SARTA) now appear at national events and host people from around the country and the world to talk about the advantages of hydrogen technology and the need for industry players to promote its development.

“I’ve been to England, France and Germany to speak,” said SARTA CEO Kirt Conrad. “And we’ve had people from as far away as New Zealand come here to speak to us.”

Conrad is largely responsible for Stark County’s push into hydrogen, and county leaders couldn’t be more pleased with the progress he has made, said Richard Regula, a Republican county commissioner with deep political roots in the area via his father, 18-term U.S. Rep. Ralph Regula.

“Besides California, we now have one of the largest fleets of buses on hydrogen in the United States,” Richard Regula said. “(Conrad has been) able to leverage all sorts of federal money to purchase these buses, and (SARTA) is now a model for fuel cells in the U.S. We’re really proud of him.”

Regula is correct about the bus fleet, Conrad said, noting, “Right now, we have the largest fleet outside of California.”

The fleet today includes 15 traditional 40-foot buses and five smaller “para-transit” vehicles that carry fewer people but are designed for passengers with disabilities, Conrad said.

Conrad said SARTA has paid for the buses largely with federal funds. SARTA has won more than $20 million in federal funding for its program, including more than $11 million that it used to purchase its first six buses in 2015, and $2.4 million in grants it won last year.

With one kilogram of hydrogen equal to about a gallon of diesel fuel in terms of the energy it delivers, the big buses have a range of about 270 miles, with 50 kg of fuel stored in tanks on their roofs.

When they’re empty, they’re refilled at SARTA’s own refueling station, a $2 million facility — also paid for primarily with federal funding — that has a 60-foot-tall tank of hydrogen.

Along the way, things have gotten a bit easier in terms of procurement.

In the beginning, SARTA basically had to design its own bus and have someone build it.

“We were sort of a general contractor, but for a bus instead of a house,” Conrad said.

Those first couple of buses were about $2 million each. But since then, the industry has come a long way after learning from players including SARTA, and Conrad said he now can buy a bus off the shelf for about $1.2 million.

But he said he has found better deals than that in cities including Cleveland, Boston and Chicago, which started hydrogen bus programs and then later sold some or all their buses, even while places such as Canton, California, Philadelphia and Las Vegas were expanding their fleets.

SARTA has been able to buy those buses at deep discounts, Conrad said, and they’ve been great additions to its fleet.

“For a while, it felt like the land of misfit toys,” he said, with an easy chuckle.

SARTA also has honed its expertise in hydrogen since it got involved with the technology, Conrad said, and today the system partners with many industry leaders on development efforts.

“I probably have six or seven nondisclosure agreements with companies we’re working with now to help move the technology forward,” Conrad said.

The hydrogen investment is good for the environment and arguably even for Canton’s image as a clean and progressive city.

But there might be an even bigger payoff.

Hydrogen and its economic potential have been hot topics recently, as the federal Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations prepares to spend $8 billion on a national hydrogen hub program funded through the $550 billion bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in 2021.

Up to $7 billion of that money will go toward establishing six to 10 regional clean hydrogen hubs across the nation, the Department of Energy has announced.

“Clean hydrogen hubs will create networks of hydrogen producers, consumers, and local connective infrastructure to accelerate the use of hydrogen as a clean energy carrier that can deliver or store tremendous amounts of energy,” DOE states on its website.

The centers are part of the nation’s plan to have a 100% clean electric grid by 2035 and net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The locations for the hydrogen hubs are expected to be announced as soon as the end of this year, Regula said.

Landing one won’t be easy. Regula said he thinks West Virginia might have an edge in competing for the hub, thanks to the power now wielded by U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat who often controls a hold-out vote his party is willing to pay for.

But Regula said that if Canton doesn’t win a hub, the region likely will — and Stark County will be a major player in it and will benefit from it.

“I think if we land the hydrogen hub and Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia come together … you’re going to see more businesses coming our way, whether it’s the people who produce the buses or something else,” Regula said.

Stark County is further embracing hydrogen by advocating for hydrogen fueling stations along state Route 30, he said. However Stark County and Canton are involved, it will be a credit to Conrad, Regula said, adding, “What Kirt Conrad and everyone has done at SARTA has just been unbelievable.”