Hydrogen fuel cell bus
SARTA, the Stark County Regional Transit Authority, got the first of its hydrogen fuel cell buses in 2016. Credit: Kathiann M. Kowalski / Courtesy

Two Ohio transit systems will roll out their first electric battery buses this year as the state’s senior U.S. senator pitches a $73 billion plan to accelerate zero-emission transit vehicles across the country.

Transit agencies have taken steps for years to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution, but budget constraints and logistical challenges have slowed the transition. Less than 2% of the nation’s 155,000 buses and paratransit vehicles are zero-emission vehicles, according to a May 2021 report by the Center for Transportation and the Environment.

Ohio public transit agencies already struggled with low state funding before the pandemic upended ridership patterns and left the sector facing an existential crisis in much of the country.

“Our transit systems need to do more and more work with less and less money,” said Akshai Singh, a Cleveland-based national transit justice organizer for the Alliance for a Just Society, which helped coordinate a letter from 29 organizations that urged U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, last month to prioritize transit funding that would include zero-emission fleets.

Brown helped secure funding for the Central Ohio Transit Authority in Columbus and Laketran east of Cleveland to purchase several electric buses and charging stations that will begin service this year. He is also a co-author with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of a $73 billion plan introduced this month to electrify the nation’s entire transit fleet by 2035.

Chargers at Laketran's Wickliffe Park-N-Ride facility.
Stations at multiple locations in Lake County will provide quick charges to Laketran’s new electric buses while drivers take leg-stretching breaks every couple of hours. The chargers shown here are at Laketran’s Wickliffe Park-N-Ride facility. Credit: Laketran / Courtesy

Electric buses hit the roads

The Central Ohio Transit Authority’s first electric bus rolled off the assembly line this spring. It and another one will soon start year-long trials in the Columbus area, said spokesperson Jeff Pullin. The goal: “Run 140 miles on a single charge in all weather conditions.”

“We need to make sure that our service isn’t impacted by recharging,” Pullin said. “So, this would allow us to run specific surface routes without having to go back and charge, or having to go back and change out the vehicle.”

The planned tests include having the heat on in the winter and air conditioning in the summer. If they work well, the transit authority plans to acquire another eight electric buses in 2022. Meanwhile, the system has bought about 20 new compressed natural gas buses each year since 2013, so that more than half of its coaches are now CNG.

Neighborhoods in urban areas are most impacted by pollution, Pullin said. “And they’re a lot of the people that use our service the most. We don’t want them to depend on vehicles that cause them to have difficulties breathing.”

The goal is to be diesel-free by 2025, he said. Diesel emissions are among the types of pollution that disproportionately affect people of color in the United States, according to an April 28 report in Science Advances. People of color and low-income groups also are more likely to suffer from energy insecurity and to be adversely affected by climate change impacts.

“The air quality around the bus is also important to me,” said Ben Capelle, chief executive officer for Laketran in Lake County. “You don’t want to stand around waiting for a bus while another bus is blowing black smoke in your face.”  Projections also show electric buses should be cheaper to run over time, he said.

Laketran’s new electric buses won’t charge at a central location. Instead, half a dozen charging stations throughout the system’s Lake County territory will provide short bursts of rapid charging as route drivers take leg-stretching breaks every couple of hours.

“We’re really the first ones in Ohio to run this type of bus,” Capelle said. “There’s a lot of energy that gets put into the bus in a short period of time.” The first of 10 buses arrives this month. Those 10 will make up a majority of the full-size coaches running within the county. (Electric isn’t yet an option for buses going to Cleveland in Cuyahoga County, he said.)

Back of hydrogen fuel cell bus
Seats at the rear of this bus are on a raised platform to accommodate the hydrogen fuel cell and other equipment underneath. The ride is quieter because fuel cells don’t make the noise that most car engines do. Credit: Kathiann M. Kowalski / Courtesy

Fuel cells on the road

Electrification isn’t the only technology being used to reduce transit emissions. The Stark Area Regional Transit Authority, known as SARTA, added its first hydrogen fuel cell bus in 2016. The system now has 19 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, including 13 full-size coaches, said Kurt Conrad, SARTA’s executive director and CEO.

The hydrogen buses are “relatively dependable,” Conrad said. So far, none of their minor maintenance issues have been related to the hydrogen-fuel electric system. And customers’ rides are quieter than those on traditional diesel buses.

Anytime SARTA replaces a diesel bus now, it buys either hydrogen-fueled buses or CNG, Conrad said. Availability has been the biggest factor in deciding between the two.

“The manufacturers don’t want to develop a product that they don’t know there’s a market for,” Conrad said. “It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg thing.”

Commercial availability also is a factor for plug-in electric buses, said Andrew Conley, chief program officer for Clean Fuels Ohio, a nonprofit group that advises transportation fleets. Even then, public transit systems may have more opportunities to buy larger electric coach buses than smaller electric paratransit vehicles.

“We’re really talking about feasibility and cost and benefits as core parameters” in any conversation for fleets, Conley said. Yet most fleets have some ability to cut down on emissions. “Usually there’s a spectrum from minimal investment and operational change to significant investment and operational change.”

Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority compressed natural gas bus
The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority got its first compressed natural gas buses in 2015. Credit: Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority / Courtesy

Propane, CNG and biogas

Laketran has gone from diesel to propane models for about half of its 100 or so smaller paratransit vehicles, which provide door-to-door service when needed. Burning propane produces lower amounts of various pollutants than either diesel or gasoline.

“Propane is cleaner, which is fantastic,” Capelle said. “But propane is also cheaper.” Fuel cost savings have been about 35%, he noted.

The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority got its first compressed natural gas buses in 2015, and about half of its large bus fleet will be CNG before January. Each vehicle that replaces an older diesel bus has led to greenhouse gas emission savings of roughly a third, said George Fields, deputy general manager for human resources there. Compared to the older diesel buses they’ve replaced, those savings are equivalent to 100 tons of carbon dioxide per bus, per year, he noted.

Compressed natural gas and propane both come from fossil fuels. However, Conley said, most electricity in Ohio and elsewhere in the PJM region also comes from fossil fuels, unless someone produces their own or contracts to buy renewable electricity. Similarly, although most hydrogen for fuel cells currently comes from natural gas, the fuel cells yield roughly twice the energy that burning the natural gas would provide.

Compared to diesel, cuts in emissions can be huge. An Argonne National Laboratory online calculator lets fleets compare expected lifetime emissions for CNG, electric and diesel buses, taking account of diesel vehicles’ in-use pollution versus theoretical laboratory calculations for new diesel vehicles.

Biofuels also produce some emissions. If the gas is renewable, however, additional net emissions can be avoided. Along those lines, Archaea Energy announced the May 13 opening of its Ashland, Kentucky, facility just across the Ohio River from Ohio. The plant produces pipeline-quality renewable natural gas from roughly 1,400 tons of trash that come in daily to a Rumpke Waste & Recycling landfill from Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia. 

Until now, methane from the landfill was simply being collected and flared, said Brian McCarthy, Archaea Energy’s co-founder and chief investment officer. “This gas is coming whether we like it or not, so we should do something” with it, he said. “It would displace either natural gas, or it would replace diesel.” 

A report by the Center for Transportation and the Environment, prepared for Sens. Brown and Schumer’s transit plan, estimated it would cost between $56 billion and $89 billion for the nationwide public transportation fleet to move to a mix of battery-electric and fuel-cell vehicles by 2035.

Meanwhile, several states already are calling for the transition. A new Maryland law requires most new purchases for the state’s public transit systems to be zero-emission vehicles starting in fiscal year 2023.

“At a point in time there’s not going to be an internal combustion industry,” SARTA’s Conrad said, noting the trend. “Transit is going to zero emissions.”

Kathi is the author of 25 books and more than 600 articles, and writes often on science and policy issues. In addition to her journalism career, Kathi is an alumna of Harvard Law School and has spent 15 years practicing law. She is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. Kathi covers the state of Ohio.