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Earth Day 2023: Hydrogen buses, the clean transportation technology of the future

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Earth Day is an important milestone to reflect on the importance of the transportation sector in reducing carbon emissions and the tools and technologies that are making the clean energy transition possible.
At Keolis, we’re reducing our carbon emissions not only to protect our planet, but to support the communities we serve—which are already being impacted by climate change. We use a variety of alternative fuels in our global fleet of buses, recognizing that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for lowering bus emissions. This fuel-agnostic approach means that we’re implementing not only hybrid and electric buses that passengers are more familiar with, but also the technology of the future, like hydrogen fuel cell buses.

To highlight the role hydrogen buses play on Earth Day and beyond, we’ll be breaking down how they work, why their efficiency and range could make them essential in the transition to alternative fuels, how Keolis is leading the way in making their widespread deployment come true, and how they fit into our broader commitments to environmental stewardship.

I.    The Basics of Hydrogen Fuel Cell Buses

Hydrogen buses are outfitted with a hydrogen fuel cell stack, which combines hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity. This electricity then powers the bus's electric motor, just like electric battery buses do. They are exceptionally clean–the only byproduct of combining hydrogen and oxygen is water vapor, which is released into the atmosphere.

II.    Hydrogen Fuel Cell Buses Could Be Key to the Renewable Energy Transition

From a sustainable transportation perspective, hydrogen buses are an attractive option since they do not directly produce any emissions, although there are still emissions produced in the production and transportation of hydrogen. From an operational point of view, they are similar to electric buses but have a much longer driving range. They need to be refueled significantly less than buses with electric batteries and when they do need to be recharged, the process is much quicker. Longer routes or those that run at high frequencies with little time to recharge are well-primed to take advantage of this benefit. And for passengers and the drivers who operate buses, the fuel cells create a quiet, smooth, and comfortable ride.

Hydrogen is still a new technology, and there’s a lot left to learn about how to best integrate it into fleets across the globe. One thing we do know: hydrogen fuel cells are a technology of the future that we must explore to determine best practices and identify the full spectrum of benefits to Public Transit Agencies (PTAs). To do so, we’ll need to deploy them in real-use scenarios to gather the knowledge that will inform hydrogen rollout in the decades to come.

III.    Keolis is Leading the Hydrogen Fuel Cell Bus Movement with the Largest Fleet in North America

Keolis is working with Foothill Transit in Pomona, California to lead the way on this journey. With 33 hydrogen buses—the largest fleet in North America at the moment —Foothill’s experience will shape the energy transition for PTAs worldwide. 

Having a larger-scale test case is especially valuable because of the economies of scale associated with building hydrogen infrastructure for many buses. In Foothill, Keolis helped deploy hydrogen fueling infrastructure required for recharging. But this infrastructure requires specialized experience and presents an upfront cost, so it doesn’t make sense to buy a small number of hydrogen buses to test how they will perform in a transit system. As a result, many PTAs opt instead to buy none rather than go all-in on hydrogen.

This dynamic makes Keolis’ work in Foothill especially important for those agencies who will analyze hydrogen buses’ performance and determine if they are right for their own fleets. Government stakeholders, too, are looking at how to support hydrogen development and how governments can help agencies fully pursue this clean energy technology.

IV.    Keolis’ Commitment to Advancing Alternative Fuels

This Earth Day and beyond, we’re committed to supporting opportunities to take the next steps for alternative fuels and making strides not only in reducing carbon emissions for our partner PTAs in North America, but also to help PTAs worldwide be better informed about how to integrate alternative fuels in their fleets. To do so, we’ll need to pursue all types of alternative fuels—including hydrogen fuel cells—to maximize their potential for the planet.

For more information and to meet the Keolis employees who operate and maintain North America’s largest hydrogen bus fleet, check out the recap video below!