At the California Association for Coordinated Transportation’s (CALACT) statewide conference in Indian Wells, Calif., from Oct. 31 to Nov. 3, SunLine Transit Agency’s Chair Lisa Middleton and CEO and General Manager Mona Babauta delivered opening remarks, sharing difficulties the agency has experienced with its hydrogen fueling station, which was built by Nel Hydrogen four years ago.
“Our electrolyzer hydrogen station, which is the largest system in a transit operating environment in the United States, has been unstable for at least a year now as a fueling solution,” Babauta said. “I’m sharing this because we showed up to this conference to learn from each other – both good and bad – passing along lessons learned by all of us through experience and trial and error.”
During the past three months, SunLine’s hydrogen fueling station has failed to dispense hydrogen for meeting its operating needs, resulting in the agency not being able to fuel approximately 35 percent of its fleet that is composed of hydrogen fuel cell buses and dropping approximately 20 percent of its daily service.
“We are very dependent on a reliable hydrogen fueling station to provide reliable service for our customers and it has stopped dispensing fuel for meeting our daily operating needs,” Babauta said. “On our worst days, we were impacting the lives of more than 1,000 customers who had to wait longer than usual for a bus to arrive.”
Nel Hydrogen conducted a site acceptance test with SunLine on Nov. 12, 2023. According to the agency, the site acceptance test failed because the chilling system is not working. Since the station was constructed, Nel has failed to prove the reliability of its fueling facility and SunLine has not accepted it as a result.
SunLine says the hope is to restore the station to full operational capacity as soon as possible in partnership with Nel Hydrogen – which currently owns, operates and maintains the station for SunLine. The agency currently faces the possibility that it will own an inoperable station in less than 30 days unless Nel can make the necessary repairs to make it operational.
Babauta noted that service has improved recently with help from a number of industry partners, including New Flyer, the Center for Transportation and the Environment, Ballard, BusStuff and AC Transit.
“They all helped us brainstorm and flesh out solutions for fueling our fuel cell buses using other technology and industry protocols,” Babauta said. “As all transit agencies in California are needing to respond to the state’s Innovative Clean Transit rule and start transitioning their fleets to zero emission by 2040, they should be able to do this with eyes wide open.”
“Problems that are identified are ones that can be fixed,” Middleton said.
While SunLine awaits a resolution to the operational halt of Nel’s hydrogen station, the agency began receiving a total of eight leased compressed natural gas (CNG) buses Nov. 3, from Complete Coach Works in Riverside County to help restore service that has been affected by the hydrogen fueling challenges.
In addition, SunLine has started constructing a new liquid hydrogen station to build resilience into its hydrogen program. Completion of the station is expected by late spring/early summer of 2024.
“We are committed to hydrogen as a long-term source of fuel for our heavy-duty bus fleet in order to meet the State’s mandate to transition all bus fleets to zero emission by 2040,” Babauta said.
CALACT’s membership is composed of individuals and agencies from diverse facets of transportation, including operators of small and large systems, planning and government agencies, social service agencies, suppliers and consultants.