County of Hawai‘i MTA Goes with Hydrogen Fuel Cells as Part of Master Plan

As part of its 2017 commitment to transition to zero emission fleets, The County of Hawaiʻi Mass Transit Agency (MTA), in partnership with the Hawaiʻi Natural Energy Institute (HNEI) and U.S. Hybrid, has taken delivery of its first hydrogen fuel-cell-powered bus.

Slated for operation later this spring, the 21-passenger 2014 El Dorado Aero Elite was accepted by the Hawaiʻi County Council in 2019 as a donation from HNEI.

“The Hawaiʻi Natural Energy Institute has been working hard to find a way for us to become more self-sustaining and transition away from traditional fossil fuels,” said John Andoh, Mass Transit Administrator and General Manager of the MTA. “They began discussions with MTA in 2010 to investigate a potential hydrogen bus pilot because we have geothermal energy, and we have great ways to convert that geothermal energy into hydrogen.”  Under the leadership of Mitch Ewan, this project has made great strides in making the project from concept to reality starting with the construction of a new hydrogen station and obtaining the funding to get a pilot bus.

Originally purchased as a gasoline-powered vehicle by HNEI using funds from the Energy Systems Development Special Fund, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the Office of Naval Research, the bus was converted by U.S. Hybrid to hydrogen with a new state-of-the-art 40 kW U.S. Hybrid fuel cell as its proprietary electric drive system.

Until completion of a base yard in Kailua Kona (tentatively scheduled for 2025), the bus will be operated and maintained by Roberts Hawaiʻi, one of Hawaii’s largest employee-owned tours and transportation companies, when maintenance can then be transitioned to the MTA.

Until then, the bus will be maintained and fueled at HNEI’s state-of-the-art hydrogen station at the Natural Energy Laboratory Hawaiʻi Authority (NELHA).

“We are also about to construct battery electric charging facilities at our Hilo yard,” Andoh said. “This will enable us to charge those electric buses when they come towards the end of 2023. We will be installing the same battery electric infrastructure as our Kailua-Kona base.”

The MTA is also awaiting delivery of two 19-passenger 2012 El Dorado Aero Elite buses converted for hydrogen fuel-cell power scheduled to be delivered later this year as a donation from the State of Hawai’i surplus office.  These buses previously was earmarked to operate within the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.  U.S. Hybrid is currently installing the hydrogen drive systems.

These developments are a result of the commitment made in 2017 by the mayors of the state’s four counties to transition their public transit fleets to zero emissions by 2035. Subsequently, MTA is working in partnership with the Hawai’i Department of Transportation and the neighboring islands of Maui and Kaua’i to implement a zero-emission bus (ZEB) rollout plan, which includes the operation of battery-electric buses on each island.  Hawai’i County is leading the charge on an electric bus procurement for 12 buses with 75 options split between the three counties.

As part of the rollout, MTA is currently testing both hydrogen fuel-cell electric buses and plug-in battery-electric buses to determine which zero emission buses best meet the county’s needs.

“We’ll have both type of vehicles,” Andoh explains. “Long term, we are going to be procuring additional battery electric buses through a private public partnership. We are also going to be applying for future Low or No grants through the Federal Transit Administration to replace our diesel and diesel hybrid fleets with either hydrogen or battery electric buses. This pilot for both fuels will give us an opportunity determine which buses best meet MTA’s needs related to operations, maintenance, cost, and other considerations.”

MTA will begin phasing in additional zero-emission buses as part of future bus purchases in 2023. The county is also in the process of implementing recommendations from its Transit and Multi-Modal Transportation Master Plan, which was officially adopted in 2018 and began implementation in 2021.

According to Andoh, the objective of the Master Plan is to rebuild the transit system, implement new routes, expand services, implement new multimodal opportunities, such as bike share, partnerships with transportation network companies, redesign the share drive program, and increase paratransit services. That includes buying more passenger amenities such as bus shelters and benches, and adding technology such as automatic vehicle locators, Wi-Fi, and electronic fareboxes to the system.

“Our ridership has declined significantly over the last 10 years due to service reliability issues,” Andoh explains. “However, we are actively trying to rebuild that ridership. And now that we have a Master Plan in place and we have begun to implement those elements, we are starting to see a return in ridership and service levels.”

The implementation of the restructured transit service supports the efforts of Mayor Mitchell D. Roth to increase access to public transit for all island residents, enabling increased economic development, improved access to employment, shopping, medical, education, and assist the County in achieving sustainability goals regarding transportation.

Official components of the Master Plan are:

Goal One: Make riding transit easier, reliable, and more desirable than other options.

Goal Two: Create a transit system to serve the employment and social needs of all people

Goal Three: Implement technology to provide real time transportation information

Goal Four: Create transportation hubs and bus stops with amenities that provide rider comfort and safety and that help support community and village gathering places

Goal Five: Phase system implementation in a fiscally sustainable manner

Actions based on the Transit and Multi-Modal Transportation Master Plan that have since been implemented or are in the process of being implemented include development of a new brand and logo, doubling bus frequency, additional routes and service areas, fare-free service, streamlined transfers, a partnership with HIBIKE bike-sharing, website upgrade, providing General Feed Transit Specification to Google, Bing, and Apple to allow for the addition of bus routes on their map applications, and the continued replacement of aging transit fleet with electric, hydrogen, and diesel hybrid electric buses.

Continued improvements based on the Transit and Multi-Modal Transportation Master Plan will progress throughout 2022 and into 2023.

“This project has been a huge achievement for us,” Andoh said. “We have long been working toward this technology that will enable us to reduce our carbon footprint and provide better quality service to our residents and visitors.”

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