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SunLine Takes the Wheel on Clean Energy

ARTICLE: Published by Intelligent Transport

Hydrogen is propelling SunLine Transit Agency in many more ways than simply a fuel source. SunLine – a public transit agency which services California’s Coachella Valley region spanning a 1,120 mile-service area and carrying approximately 4.2 million riders – is known as a pioneer in hydrogen technologies, stemming back nearly three decades.

Going Clean

Since 1993, SunLine has pursued an aggressive strategy for incorporating clean technologies into its operations. SunLine took action to replace its entire fleet overnight from diesel engines to cleaner-burning compressed natural gas (CNG) when its Board of Directors adopted a voluntary policy of pursuing alternative fuel solutions that provide the lowest possible emissions.

On May 6, 1994, 40 brand new buses fueled by clean CNG rolled onto the streets of the Coachella Valley – and SunLine Transit Agency became the first transit agency in the state to convert its entire fleet to CNG. This was a huge investment, exemplifying the Agency’s commitment to clean air and greenhouse gas emission reduction.

Fast forward 6 years to the year 2000, which SunLine’s pivotal history in the development of hydrogen-fueled vehicles began with the Xcellsis H2 Hydrogen Fuel Cell zero emission bus – or ZE Bus. This was the dawn of state-of-the-art zero-emission technology that would revolutionize the future. SunLine has developed several generations of hydrogen electric fuel cell buses since then, each of which has showcased its own unique advancements in zero-emission technology.

In 2003, the Agency put into service the first hydrogen fuel cell bus in the world to incorporate hybrid electric technology. With the launch of SunFuels in 2006, SunLine took ownership of its two fueling stations – becoming the first-ever transit agency to own and operate a natural gas and hydrogen generation and dispensing station.

The milestones continued to follow. In 2010, SunLine launched a fuel cell bus known as the FC2 that was the prototype for an entirely new hydrogen bus model and the basis for 20 additional buses built for the 2010 winter Olympics. The next year, the American Fuel Cell Bus was introduced as a first-of-its-kind all American-made fuel cell bus which enabled transit agencies across the country to purchase a 40-foot fuel cell bus that met the FTA’s “Buy America” requirements – paving the way for further commercialization of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

While SunLine is proud of its strides in the development of hydrogen technology – the positive effects of these advancements in the lives of the communities we serve are what matter most. When it comes to environmental equity, underserved communities have historically not been afforded the same access to clean air as those who are able to live in less industrial areas or on busy roads. Therefore, all of the zero-emission buses that have been deployed are pivotal to the realization of air quality impacts.

Accelerating Green Goals

With additional arrivals of New Flyer Xcelsior hydrogen fuel cell buses in the past year, SunLine’s fleet now incorporates 21 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles with five more scheduled for delivery in July 2022 – which keeps the Agency on track to be fully transitioned to zero emissions by 2035 – five years ahead of the deadline set in the state’s ICT Regulation (2040). In addition, the fleet incorporates 4 battery electric buses and 60 CNG buses.

But being at the forefront of building a clean fuels fleet is only half of SunLine’s hydrogen story. Producing hydrogen is as critical as fueling the vehicles it powers. It’s a full-circle approach that is crucial to the success of an agency focused on green initiatives throughout all facets of its operations – including solutions for green electricity. That’s why SunLine is not just reducing on tailpipe emissions. The Agency has also instituted a multi-year solar project to create renewable energy with the creation of a micro-grid.

The Importance of Infrastructure

SunLine’s growing hydrogen fuel cell fleet is made possible by an ongoing investment in onsite infrastructure including the largest hydrogen fueling station dedicated to transit in the U.S. – the PEM Hydrogen Electrolyzer.

The electrolyzer allows the Agency to manufacture its own hydrogen production, offering a bundled fleet and electrolyzer-based fueling solution that paves the way for and accelerates mass adoption of fuel cell buses and trucks in fleet operators. This, in turn, drives down the total cost of ownership of fuel cell bus and truck fleets – making it an impactful program for propelling long-term reductions in carbon footprints and greenhouse gases throughout the country.

A new liquid hydrogen station will include liquid storage, a vaporizer, compression equipment, gaseous storage, and dispensing equipment. It will also provide both capacity and resiliency for existing and future fueling infrastructure alongside the Agency’s hydrogen electrolyzer. Together, the hydrogen electrolyzer and liquid hydrogen station will be capable of fueling 57 fixed route fuel cell electric buses and 39 paratransit fuel cell electric buses. The completed station is expected to be operational by the end of 2023.

Partnerships are key in cutting edge technology, and one example is SunLine’s collaboration with NICE America Research. This group has established liquid H2 pump technology and a mobile refueling system which removes barriers impeding widespread use of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles for transportation purposes. The NICE liquid hydrogen system reduces operating costs to a comparable level to that of diesel-powered buses and takes about the same time to refuel. This technology offers hydrogen stations in the form of a mobile trailer allowing use without a permanent station structure, and cuts down the cost and time it would take to build permanent hydrogen stations. SunLine piloted this system at its Indio facility in January 2022.

Another partnership with Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas) will introduce groundbreaking technology that produces hydrogen from renewable natural gas at SunLine’s hydrogen fueling station. The research project, called “H2 SilverSTARS,” will produce renewable hydrogen to fuel SunLine’s fleet of hydrogen fuel cell electric buses and support further expansion. The combination of new technologies will make it possible to provide renewable hydrogen made from renewable natural gas at any location near a natural gas pipeline. The goal is to produce emissions-free renewable hydrogen for fuel cell electric cars and other vehicles at a price competitive with gasoline.

Funding the Future of Clean Air

SunLine has received more than $27 million in grants – from agencies including the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and the Federal Transit Agency (FTA) – over the past 10 years in order to purchase the zero-emission vehicles and equipment necessary to produce hydrogen. By modeling zero-emission and hydrogen solutions for other small to mid-size systems, SunLine has garnered grant support and secured other funding programs that continue to help expand its zero-emission program.

The Agency already sells compressed natural gas to commercial and government agencies, and plans to sell hydrogen, as well.

SunLine Transit Agency has played a vital role in the development of zero-emission and hydrogen fuel technologies, and is recognized worldwide for its contributions to the transit industry. SunLine will continue to do its part to provide environmentally-responsible public transportation which ensures natural resources are preserved – safeguarding clean air for future generations.


Coachella Valley Clean Cities Coalition