Long-awaited hydrogen buses on the way: Transit administrator predicts first bus in service by end of year

  • BRENDA CARREIRA

It’s been a long road, but the county’s first hydrogen bus — and possibly even three buses — should be traveling Kona streets before the year is out.

The first bus, a 2014 Eldorado 29-passenger Aero Elite vehicle worth $500,000, was donated to the county by the University of Hawaii Natural Energy Institute. The county needs to pay only the cost of transporting it from Oahu to the Big Island.

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The bus was converted from diesel and then upgraded with the latest fuel cells, Kohala Councilman Tim Richards said. It will rely on hydrogen fuel produced at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority.

Two hydrogen-powered shuttle buses donated to the county by Hawaii Volcanoes National Park are also on Oahu at the UH institute. They’re also scheduled to be upgraded with the latest fuel cell technology.

County Mass Transit Administrator Brenda Carreira said her office just got approval from the county purchasing agent for the upgrades. Once the buses are upgraded and painted Hele-On colors, they’ll be added to the fleet, she said.

“Training of mechanics and infrastructure is what I’m most concerned with,” Carreira said.

She said the mechanics are currently being trained virtually.

The Council Finance Committee on Tuesday voted favorably on the donation of the one bus in Resolution 724 and then in separate action voted favorably on Resolution 725, which authorizes the mayor to enter a two-year agreement with the Natural Energy Institute to “plan, design, implement, operate and maintain” all three buses.

Both resolutions now go to the County Council with a positive recommendation for one more vote.

It’s been a more than five-year climb to get this far. The 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.

The Big Island’s first hydrogen production facility, part of a $5 million demonstration project, was in the works in 2015, with original plans to put the hydrogen production facility at Puna Geothermal Venture, where there was a firm renewable energy source that could be tapped directly to produce hydrogen from water through electrolysis.

The project was moved to NELHA because of early concerns about lava flows isolating the plant. That meant the buses will be running on the west side of the island, too, although the project will include a hydrogen transport vehicle to eventually supply the fuel to east-side buses as well.

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Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder hopes buses will be available for East Hawaii soon, too. He noted all four county mayors signed a proclamation in 2017 to convert county bus fleets to hydrogen by 2035.

“We have about 15 years to move into zero emissions for our entire fleet,” Kanealii-Kleinfelder said. “This is one of those exciting things.”

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