Council excited about hydrogen

HILO — Three hydrogen buses will soon be part of the county Hele-On fleet, as the infrastructure comes together to create the fuel for a Mass Transit pilot program on both sides of the island.

The zero-based emissions bus project began almost 10 years ago, and a new 29-passenger bus is currently undergoing its final fit-out in Honolulu before being shipped to the island, Riley Saito, energy specialist with the county Department of Research and Development, told a County Council panel Tuesday.

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A hydrogen production facility should be completed “within weeks” at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority, he said. The pilot project is funded with a mix of grants from the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Naval Research, and the state’s hydrogen fund.

“This is not a new idea,” said Puna Council-man Matt Kanealii-Klein-felder. “It’s been around a long time, but now we’ve started thinking we could implement it.”

The county three weeks ago also took ownership of two hydrogen-powered shuttle buses from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

But that’s just the beginning of the story as the county works toward the state’s 2045 zero emissions target.

Because buses alone account for 25% of the fossil fuel use on the island, they’re the first target. The hydrogen breaks down into water vapor.

The buses, which can run for 30 hours on their on-board fuel cells, can also be used as mobile power sources during emergencies, helping Civil Defense bring life-saving power to those who need it most.

But, there’s more, said Mitch Ewan, hydrogen systems program manager at the University of Hawaii — Manoa’s Hawaii Natural Energy Institute. He’s exploring ways to tap into the methane currently being burned off the old Kona landfill, which he says could be converted into enough hydrogen to run 30 buses 700 miles a day.

And more, still.

A group of investors is working to help form a public-private partnership to build a plant to retrofit the county’s old diesel buses to hydrogen. That would require some startup money from the state or county, but it would provide technical training and jobs for island residents, Ewan said.

“We’re asking the government to prime the well,” Ewan said. “You’re giving the people who need it a really, really good transportation system (and) at some point it will be attractive enough for the private industry to take it over.”

Kanealii-Kleinfelder plans to help jump-start that process by sponsoring legislation urging or requiring the county to purchase only hydrogen buses for its system.

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Other council members were enthusiastic about the prospects as well.

“These conversations have been going on for quite some time,” said Kohala Councilman Tim Richards. “It’s starting to get very exciting.”

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