The Big Island is on the verge of testing three hydrogen-fueled buses.
It’s been sitting on that verge for more than five years, but, according to Riley Saito, with the Hawai‘i County Department of Research and Development, just a few more tweaks are all that’s needed before the hydrogen buses are added to the county’s Hele-On fleet.
At least two of them, anyway.
Those two are 19-passenger vehicles that were supposed to be used as shuttles for visi- tors to Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. In August, the Hawai‘i County Council approved resolutions authorizing the mayor to accept the donation of the two buses – “2012 F550 ENC Aero Elite” buses, outfitted to run on hydrogen – from the state’s surplus property office.
Although the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) noted that in 2018, the cost of a hydrogen bus averaged $1.92 million, the county is getting them practically for free through the state’s Surplus Property Office. That agency received the buses from the National Park Service as a donation. All the county pays is $500 per bus as a “service and handling fee” to the Surplus Property Office.
Just what the county will pay to put these vehicles on the road is uncertain. The only hydrogen filling station on the Big Island is at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawai‘i Authority (NELHA), on the Kona side. Saito told Environment Hawai‘i that the NELHA hydrogen station was not yet permitted to operate by the county Fire Department.
While hydrogen buses are touted as zero-emission, the process of generating hydrogen uses energy. The NELHA facility relies on power from the HELCO grid and the HELCO power station closest to NELHA is an oil-fired plant.
In June, the Hawai‘i County Council held an informational hearing on the status of hydrogen buses. Council members were told then that a third hydrogen bus – a 29- passenger, brand new Ford F550 Eldorado – was on O‘ahu and ready to be delivered to the county. That cost of that vehicle was $707,500, paid to US Hybrid by the Hawaii Center for Advanced Transportation Technologies (HCATT), a state agency run through the High Tech Development Corporation.
Margaret Larson, the transportation specialist at the Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism’s Energy Office, could not identify any facility that routinely uses hydrogen buses in Hawai‘i. Some had been proposed for shuttles at the Honolulu airport, but none is operating there yet. Alan Yonan, with the Energy Office, said that HCATT “has retrofitted several military vehicles with hydrogen fuel cells for use at Hickam Air Force Base.” —Patricia Tummons