Regional Transportation Commission adds hydrogen fuel buses to its fleet

The Regional Transportation Commission is adding eight hydrogen fuel buses to its fleet that includes 23 electric buses.

The Regional Transportation Commission is adding eight hydrogen fuel buses to its fleet that includes 23 electric buses.

Ongoing fuel cost issues are one of the main reasons why the Regional Transportation Commission has created a highly diversified fleet of buses that run on a range of alternative fuels.

The Regional Transportation Commission was an early adopter of electric buses, said Jim Gee, RTC service planning and innovation manager. RTC currently has 23 electric buses in its fleet, but those buses have range issues that limit their effectiveness. Two recent federal grants to purchase eight hydrogen fuel buses, along with creation of a hydrogen fueling infrastructure, will significantly alter RTC’s route planning and service capabilities, Gee told Northern Nevada Business Weekly in an August interview.

“Our first electric vehicles were obtained in 2014,” Gee said. “Over time, we learned a lot of lessons from using those vehicles. We know the strengths of the fleet, which are savings on fuel costs and on maintenance because there are less moving parts in an electric bus.

“However, we also know their weaknesses, and range by far is the biggest issue,” he added. “Instead of getting 300 miles, which is the typical range of diesel or hybrid-diesel vehicles, these vehicles get about 100 (miles).”

That lack of range affects scheduling. Instead of designing bus schedules based on passenger needs, they must be designed around bus capabilities, which is totally backward, Gee said.

Scalability is another problem, he added. Whenever RTC purchases an electric bus, it must also buy additional electrical infrastructure to support and charge that bus. Additionally, electric buses aren’t a one-for-one replacement compared to a diesel or hybrid bus because of the range issues.

Courtesy of RTC

The Regional Transportation Commission is adding eight hydrogen fuel buses to its fleet that includes 23 electric buses.


Range is an issue that’s compounded by geography — steep and hilly terrain impacts electric buses by reducing their overall range since the vehicle has to work harder to climb grades.

Still, the electric fleet serves RTC in many ways, especially shorter routes in the urban core. Eight electric buses and spares service the Virginia route up and down Virginia Street, and three buses service the Lincoln Line between downtown Reno and downtown Sparks. The buses also run the Carson City route because they can travel to the capitol and back on one charge in the morning, plug in and re-run the route in the afternoon.

Northern Nevada’s weather also affects the capabilities of the battery-electric fleet. In temperate conditions range might be extended to 120 miles, but in cold conditions when the bus has to fire up its heaters and use more power range may dip down to 80 miles. Cold weather also has a noticeable effect on battery lifespan, Gee noted.

Hydrogen fuel buses address the limitations of battery-electric buses on multiple fronts.

Hydrogen buses also have on-board batteries, but instead of having to return to RTC maintenance headquarters to plug in and recharge, hydrogen buses have an on-board fuel cell that provides power to the batteries while the bus is in the field, which greatly extends the range of the bus. The hydrogen buses blend ambient air and hydrogen to create electricity as the bus is moving, which charges the electric portion of the bus and basically triples its range.

“You are adding ambient air from the bus going down the road, plus hydrogen into the fuel cell, and you get electricity out and water out — that’s it,” Gee said. “What that means for us is that we are getting 300 miles range on a hydrogen bus versus 100 on an electric bus.”

The benefits to RTC are significant, Gee added. The hydrogen buses provide increased flexibility because they can go anywhere — in the transit world, the optimal range for service is 300 miles. Vehicles leave the garage at 6 a.m. and come back at 10 p.m., which covers two driver work shifts.

“It allows us to treat those hydrogen buses like our previous full-diesel and hybrid-diesel buses. Instead of having to come back to the garage to plug in and recharge, the bus can run a full route and remain on the road. That allows us to be homogeneous on how we plan bus and driver usage, which ultimately allows us to provide better frequency and usage to our customers.

“Another advantage of hydrogen is scalability. If you buy a battery bus, you have to buy the charging for each bus. If you buy a hydrogen bus, you basically build a filling station that can support anywhere from 10 to 50 buses. It’s a lot more scalable.”

A federal grant of $6.8 million is being used to purchase two hydrogen buses, plus the fueling infrastructure. A second grant of $8.8 million is being used to buy an additional six hydrogen vehicles. RTC’s hydrogen fueling station will be located at its Sutro Street facility, which is home to the transportation commission's paratransit fleet.

Hydrogen fuel is currently being trucked in from Sacramento. RTC will be able to store about a week’s worth of fuel capacity, which should alleviate concerns about drivers crossing the Sierra in winter months, Gee said. RTC also locked in pricing on a five-year contract that makes it comparable to the biodiesel it uses, he added.

RTC expects to receive its first vehicles in the late fourth quarter or early first quarter of 2024. It also plans to build out the hydrogen fueling infrastructure at that time. The buses should be in service on regional roads beginning in the first quarter of 2024.

In the interim, RTC maintenance staff will begin training on service and repair of the hydrogen fuel cells — the first federal grant also included dollars for training.

“We will have a really innovative virtual reality training component for mechanics,” Gee said. “They will wear (VR) goggles and work on the bus virtually and use that program to train on how to fix the fuel cells.

“Hydrogen and sustainability are really important at RTC,” Gee said. “We have a history of being leaders in the transit industry in terms of sustainability. Our long term vision is to have a fleet of vehicles with all different types of propulsion systems. That broad portfolio equips us to give the best service to our customers.”

RTC plans for centralized operations

The Regional Transportation Commission is planning to centralize operations from its Sutro Street facility.

Operations are currently spread between multiple locations. RTC has administrative offices on Terminal Way, fleet drivers work out of the Villanova facility, and paratransit drivers work out of the Sutro facility. The location at 600 Sutro St. will eventually become RTC’s long-term home and headquarters.

Fleet operations on Villanova Drive sit directly underneath Interstate 580.

“We are pretty landlocked, and you can’t easily do alternative fuels because we have an interstate on our roof,” said Jim Gee, RTC service planning and innovation manager. “Moving everything over to Sutro – which we have to do anyway as part of a future Spaghetti Bowl (expansion) – makes a lot more sense. It allows us to consolidate, and we get economies of scale because we don’t have vehicles spread out.

“We also can invest in that facility with natural gas for our paratransit fleet, with hydrogen for our fixed routes, and battery electric,” Gee added.

RTC is currently working on design plans that will go out to bid to an architectural firm that can shepherd the transportation commission through the entire construction process. A move is likely more than five years in the future, Gee noted.

“For us, this is a generational project; it’s something you do every 30 or 40 years, so we have to do it right,” he said.

–Rob Sabo


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