The East Bay cuts pollution with hydrogen-powered transit
The buses are 40-foot-long behemoths, but they glide along downtown streets as silently as sleds coasting over snow; passersby barely turn their heads. The local AC Transit agency, which serves Oakland, Berkeley and other East Bay cities, hopes its fleet of three hydrogen-powered busesâthe largest in the nationâwill help to leave the environment just as undisturbed.
Jaimie Levin, AC Transit's director of alternative-fuels policy, had his conversion experience in 1999 when he attended a demonstration. âI couldn't believe the potential for addressing environmental-health issues,â he says. âThe only emission from this bus was water vapor.â When the California Air Resources Board passed a regulation in 2000 requiring transit agencies to switch to cleaner buses, AC Transit had the impetus it needed to start a project. Over the next few years, it amassed more than $12 million in grants and forged partnerships with multiple companies that helped them design the hydrogen-powered buses. The first buses took to the streets in 2005, and the fleet should grow to eight in 2009.
Although the buses substantially reduce transit pollution (diesel buses emit 130 tons of carbon dioxide per year), initiatives like AC Transit's remain largely showcase projects. Custom components drive the price of each bus to $2 million, more than five times the cost of diesel buses. Levin believes this will change if U.S. authorities throw their full political and financial weight behind hydrogenâwhich seems a more feasible goal now that the Federal Transit Administration has started parceling out $49 million in research grants for fuel-cell buses. âUltimately, this becomes a public-policy decision,â he says. âWe can bring costs down by building the buses on a large scale, and local governments can help accelerate that.â