Hydrogen Fuel Cell

Ask anyone to identify the epicenter of innovation in zero-emissions transportation and they are likely to answer San Francisco, Seattle, San Diego, Denver, Denmark, Germany, Japan or China.

They would all be wrong. For as anyone who catches a glimpse of the hydrogen storage tank that soars more than 60 feet above the Stark Area Regional Transit Authority’s (SARTA) headquarters soon discovers, ground zero of the alternative fuel revolution is located in the middle of a quiet neighborhood in Canton, Ohio where the transit system operates one of the largest fleets of hydrogen fuel cell-powered (HFC) transit vehicles in North America and the fueling station that keeps them criscrossing the roads of this mid-size, Midwest community.

SARTA’s journey to national and international prominence in the development and deployment of HFC technology is a story of vision, innovation, determination, and collaboration. The opening chapter was written in 2010 when the transit system decided to assemble and deploy a zero-emission fleet. “We began by developing a transition plan to move from diesel, to diesel/electric, to CNG powered-vehicles,” CEO Kirt Conrad said. “When we started, HFCs weren’t on our radar screen. We soon realized, however, that CNG was a waypoint on the path to our goal, not the ultimate destination. As we learned more and more about alternative fuels it became apparent that HFCs were the real long-term sustainability solution we were seeking.”

Few in the transit industry shared his opinion. “In theory, fuel cells appeared to be an attractive alternative to diesel, CNG, and plug-in electric power, but at that time many people doubted the propulsion and power systems would be able to stand up to the wear and tear of daily use in revenue service,” Mr. Conrad said. “I decided there was only one way to find out: buy a bus and run it.”

That was easier said than done. Every dollar of the system’s existing revenue stream; a local sales tax levy, federal funds, fares, and contract services was being used to provide mobility services to the residents of Stark County.  If SARTA wanted to purchase HFC buses, which then cost $2 million each, the system would need to find other sources of money. Conrad and his team went to work and applied for grants from every agency and entity they could find.

They first hit paydirt when they received a $2.7 million FTA grant that paid for the system’s first HFC bus. A year later they scored again: $8.9 million in FTA Low/No Emission funding that paid for five more buses. To date the entire cost of SARTA’s fuel cell research and development program, including the construction of the fueling station and the purchase of 15 full size and five paratransit vehicles has been funded entirely by more than $20 million in state and federal grants.

According to Mr. Conrad the money has been well-spent. “We started down this path to make the air in Stark County cleaner, and we’re doing just that,” he said.  “Every HFC bus reduces the carbon released into the atmosphere by 100 tons annually. We’re proud of the fact that residents of our community are breathing easier thanks to our commitment to sustainability and green energy.”

In addition, Mr. Conrad’s “buy it, run it, prove it works” theory is erasing doubts about the viability of H2 technology in the transportation space.  “The vast amount of data we’ve accumulated and practical experience we’ve gained by operating our HFC fleet on the streets and highways of Stark County in every imaginable type of weather over the past ten years proves that our HFC buses deliver much greater range than battery electrics, are both more reliable and affordable to operate, and, perhaps most importantly from an operational standpoint, take only minutes to refuel,” he continued. “All of which leads to the obvious conclusion that hydrogen is the best zero-emission solution available in the marketplace today.”

SARTA’s HFC investment will also pay dividends by making Stark County and Ohio a focal point of alternative energy/zero emission R & D and manufacturing. “The alternative fuel revolution is underway, H2 is going to play a major role in it, and that means SARTA and the region are perfectly positioned to benefit as the electrification of transportation in America creates good-paying jobs and generates billions of dollars in economic development and business activity.”

Some of that activity is taking place at the transit authority’s 1600 Gateway Blvd. headquarters today. The system is collaborating on a three-month demonstration of NICE America’s groundbreaking mobile submerged pump liquid hydrogen refueling unit.  According to Mr. Conrad the system has the potential to drive exponential growth in the use of HFC power in the transportation industry by overcoming challenges related to the availability and expense of refueling HFC vehicles.

Mr. Conrad noted that SARTA could not have embarked on its HFC journey without the support of the community. Our HFC initiative is incredibly popular in Stark County because we made a concerted effort to educate the public about the program. People know what we are doing, why we are doing it, and who is paying for it and they applaud us for bringing home millions of dollars from Washington and Columbus.

Our elected officials, community leaders, and residents played an integral role in making SARTA a leader in one of the most important and fastest growing industries in the world.