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Guest article: Are fuel cell buses on the march?

Five years ago it was almost impossible to even procure a fuel cell bus, the focus having turned to battery electric buses. In 2021 fuel cell buses are back. The industry has more to offer, political support for hydrogen is high, and a growing number of transport companies are keen on a vehicle range better than that of battery electric buses.

Never before has there been such a lively discussion about fuel cell use on public transport buses. When one talks to the actors however, it becomes clear that fuel cell buses are not the solution to everything. Rather, they are one of several alternatives besides battery electric buses and synthetic fuels – because hydrogen use has its issues too.

Question marks remain over hydrogen sourcing and availability

Lower levels of energy efficiency compared with battery electric alternatives, question marks over availability, i.e. hydrogen sourcing and production, and large-volume storage at bus depots: those are the challenges that Wolfgang Reitmeier of the Association of German Transport Companies (VDV) is talking about. How much hydrogen will be available for public transport in the future, for a competitor of heavy industry and civil aviation, no one currently knows. Nor have policymakers made it clear yet whether they will set quotas in the event of a supply conflict.

Alexander Möller, senior partner at Roland Berger, is emphatic that we still need hydrogen as an alternative. The EU Clean Vehicles Directive has already made it mandatory to procure low-emission and zero-emission buses as of 2 August 2021. Accordingly, there is pressure, even if decisions to implement the directive have yet to be taken at national level. Möller encourages actors not to focus on deadlines: “Transport companies and authorities should not merely comply with the legal requirements, but also examine what is practicable at local level – and rather than being indecisive should shape their own future instead.“

The picture shows the Solaris Urbino 12.

Photo: Solaris

The picture shows the test bus of ESWE Verkehr.

Photo: ESWE Verkehr

Pioneers gain their first practical experience

The ESWE in Wiesbaden and WSW Mobil in Wuppertal are onboard with this approach. However, the practical reports of David Coleman, head of Innovative Projects at ESWE, and Andreas Meyer, lead project manager for the introduction of fuel cell buses at WSW, also acknowledge how complex a project like this is. Coleman is focused on the future: “We shouldn’t always be comparing fuel cell and battery electric buses with the advantages of diesel buses.“

At Wiesbaden, they are open-minded about the available technology. A large fleet of 120 battery-electric buses is to start operating by the end of 2021, while hydrogen power will be used on longer routes. At the same time, there are also plans to equip battery electric buses with fuel cells to increase the vehicle range. The joint H2-Bus Rhein-Main project with partners from Frankfurt and Mainz failed because a vehicle manufacturer was unable to deliver. The ESWE subsequently took over the funding as well as an entire batch of ten vehicles. After a renewed call for tender, orders were placed with the Portuguese company Caetano, which is due to deliver fuel cell buses by the end of the year. A filling station has already been built and is currently being used for a test vehicle the ESWE borrowed from Winzenhöler, an SME in the state of Hesse.

Matching diesel bus costs is possible – with financial support

Coleman stresses that overall, introducing alternative drive systems represents an “integrated transformation project“. Andreas Meyer from Wuppertal agrees, while pointing out little things: in order for a fuel cell bus to be assigned a route, the energy supplier needs notification three days in advance to optimise hydrogen stocks. That is something quite unusual for scheduling staff. Meyer appreciates the availability of Van Hool fuel cell buses being higher than 80 per cent. In the first few months, maintenance costs slightly exceeded diesel buses, but were below WSW expectations.

Keeping the project costs level with those of diesel buses has been possible – at least once all the funding is added in. The ability of the company-owned waste incinerator to produce hydrogen at low electricity market prices, the ideal combination of an electrolyser and filling station, as well as IT upgrades have all contributed to this. The government of North Rhine Westphalia is aiming to get one thousand fuel cell buses on the road throughout the state. In that situation, Meyer expects vehicle prices to come down significantly, from three times to twice that of a diesel bus.

The picture shows 5 buses of WSW mobil.

Photo: WSW mobil

The picture shows a Van Hool bus with the display 'A 18'.

Photo: Van Hool

Good prospects for articulated fuel cell buses

Despite a current availability of rigid fuel cell vehicles mainly 12 metres in length, there is also significant demand for articulated fuel cell buses. Van Hool has announced its newly developed fourth-generation fuel cell bus, due to go into production next year. The corresponding articulated model will be available by early 2023 at the latest, promises Geert van Hecke, head of Sales, Public Transport.

In Germany, Caetano is also on the market with its H2 City Gold model. Furthermore, the Portuguese company has announced the launch of an 18-metre long articulated bus in 2023 as well as an 11.3-metre rigid version. This features a Toyota fuel cell – the Japanese became shareholders in Caetano Bus a few months ago. Both Van Hool and Caetano say their rigid vehicles’ fuel consumption is between 5 and 9 kg per 100 km, depending on the terrain and weather.

In addition to the Belgians and Portuguese, the Polish manufacturer Solaris is marketing a fuel cell bus too. Deliveries are currently taking place in Wuppertal as well as to regional public transport companies in Cologne. Buses4Future, based in Oldenburg, is a newcomer to the market. Its first customer will be Stadtwerke Münster. Daimler Buses – which supplied the above-mentioned first small batch of fuel cell buses in 2003 and 2011 – continues to develop this drive variant. The battery-electric eCitaro will become available in 2022, optionally equipped with a fuel cell to increase its range.

At the same time, public transport companies in other cities have announced that electrification of their bus fleets will emphasise hydrogen power – among them Ruhrbahn in Essen, Mülheim an der Ruhr and Stadtwerke Krefeld. In other cities and regions the technology will be trialled in smaller numbers over the coming months. In some places studies are still ongoing. With almost 20 years having passed since the first series was produced, it seems the time may now be right for fuel cell buses to become a serious market contender in Germany.

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