Commentary: Why fuel cell buses are fast becoming operators’ vehicle of choice

June 4, 2024
Longer operational range, quick refueling and robust performance in a variety of climates are among the factors driving interest in hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

In the race towards a greener future, the global transport sector is undergoing a significant transformation. Leading this charge is the remarkable growth of zero-emission buses (ZEB) – both battery electric and fuel cell electric – which are quickly becoming the backbone of public transit across major markets worldwide.

While there is consensus that no “one-fits-all” solution currently exists – duty cycles, climate, terrain and depot location are all factors determining the right technology for the operator’s needs – transit agencies are increasingly choosing hydrogen buses for their fleets. Their motivation – longer operational range, quick refueling and robust performance in a variety of climates, are all critical factors for their diverse geographical and weather conditions. 

Unlike electric buses, which require several hours to recharge, hydrogen buses can be refueled in as little as 10 minutes, mirroring the convenience of traditional diesel buses but without the environmental toll. Furthermore, the scalability of hydrogen fueling infrastructures and the potential for green hydrogen production to align with global climate goals, makes hydrogen buses not just a transitional technology but a long-term sustainable solution to public transit.

Deployment of fuel cell electric bus fleets is currently experiencing an upturn worldwide with transit agencies and operators. With a concerted shift towards cleaner public transport, global bus manufacturers are at the forefront of this transition. 

Fuel cell electric bus adoption in the U.S. has enjoyed robust growth of 76 percent from 2022-2023, with 13 states now reporting the inclusion of fuel cell buses in their transit fleets. California still leads the way, with plans to deploy more than 2,000 additional hydrogen-powered buses in the coming years, to complement the existing 140 vehicles in service today.

Based on the specific needs of transit agencies to provide the best service for their riders, it is becoming increasingly apparent from operational data that fuel cell buses offer several advantages over battery electric buses for operators transitioning from diesel power to a zero-emission alternative. Both technologies are required to ultimately achieve 100 percent ZEB fleets.

With data demonstrating superiority in range and refueling time, operators’ insights and recent transit agency evaluations of zero-emission technologies have also revealed significant infrastructure challenges and cost implications in accommodating battery electric buses. In contrast, fuel cell alternatives require minimal alterations to existing depot infrastructure, offering a more cost-effective and practical solution.

This is exacerbated when addressing the scalability of infrastructure and potential increases in fleet size long-term. While investment in electric buses may initially appear lower, as an agency’s number of ZEBs increase, it becomes evident that fuel cell platforms offer an enhanced economic advantage due to scalability of refueling infrastructure and their position as a one-to-one drop-in replacement for existing diesel vehicles and fleets. 

For transit agencies, the priority is in providing a passenger experience that is high quality, comfortable and has minimal waiting times. With high vehicle availability and no compromise in range or operational performance, fuel cell electric buses deliver an optimal solution that presents an enhanced offering to both passengers and transit agencies globally.  

Building on intensified financial support of the public transit sector, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration Low or No Emission Program has provided more than $1 billion in funding for each of the past three years. This assists state and local governments in their efforts to establish and improve low- and zero-emission transit bus fleets and infrastructure and, in so doing, facilitate the growth trajectory of decarbonized public transit solutions across the U.S. by modernizing buses, improving facilities and upskilling workforces.

About the Author

Tim Sasseen | Market Development Director, Ballard Power Systems

With more than 30 years of experience at Ballard, Sasseen leads the company’s market development and public relations activities in North America. He has extensive knowledge of the zero-emission bus landscape having worked with multi-national companies and startups as customer and supplier across broad functional teams in the U.S., Canada and Europe.