September 1, 2006
By MARK PETERS, Courant Staff Writer
The fuel cell-powered bus that will soon prowl Hartford's downtown streets is quiet, efficient and replaces toxic clouds of exhaust with pure water vapor.
But for now, it will be the only one of its kind in New England - mostly because it costs more than $2 million and its reliability is still being assessed.
The new bus won't go into operation until the winter, but officials gathered at Union Station Thursday to announce the federally funded test project. But for UTC Power, the South Windsor company that makes the bus's fuel cell power plant, Connecticut's capital is thousands of miles from where it's focusing its sales effort.
European cities such as London, Hamburg and Milan are where the company sees the political will, desire for clean air and popularity of mass transit that are conducive to the first large-scale purchase of fuel cell buses.
UTC Power officials concede that price and durability remain obstacles to overcome, even in Europe. Even so, they believe the mass transit market is the shortest path to commercial success in fuel cell transportation.
"I looked at transit agencies as really a possible way to leap-frog," said Jan van Dokkum, president of UTC Power, a subsidiary of United Technologies Corp.
Van Dokkum said he wants to have a contract for 100 buses in the next year and start ramping up operations to make the transportation fuel cells in South Windsor. A Belgium-based partner, VanHool, will make the bus.
"We have an area cleaned out," van Dokkum said. "We have been preparing for this for about a year."
The company has not given up on a fuel cell-powered passenger car, however, and is working with many of the world's largest automakers, including BMW and Nissan.
Fuel cells are growing in popularity as countries around the world try to reduce their dependence on oil. The technology uses hydrogen, typically derived from natural gas, to produce electricity through a chemical reaction. That electricity powers a motor to run a car, truck or bus.
Fuel cell technology is more efficient than gas, and produces only water and heat as byproducts. Fuel cells would have even greater appeal if a cheap, renewable process for making hydrogen is discovered,
UTC Power is stressing the benefits of fuel cells in cities throughout Europe. Company officials believe the benefits of fuel cell buses will resonate, in part, because the continent is further ahead on addressing emissions.
Test projects run by UTC Power in cities such as Madrid replaced dirty diesel buses and attracted environmentally conscious commuters. Bus drivers also liked the quiet engines. And in London, government officials liked the potential health care savings from cleaner air.
"We have to sell this on an overall, holistic point of view," van Dokkum said.
At the same time, the mass transit market solves the difficulties of establishing hydrogen fuel pumps because buses tend to refuel at the same depot. Public transportation companies are also more likely to try new technologies, van Dokkum said.
But the high cost of fuel cell vehicles remains an issue.
That is why UTC Power is trying to get a coalition of European cities to buy 100 fuel cell-powered buses. By selling 100 buses at a time, UTC Power could save as much as $1 million a bus by scale of production. Right now, fuel cells aren't made on an automated assembly line, something that raises costs.
Reliability is also a concern. Hartford's fuel cell bus, for example, is warranted for about 4,000 hours. The warranty needs to reach 20,000 hours to be competitive with diesel buses.
Success in the mass transit market could be a boost for UTC Power. So far, the company has concentrated mostly on research and development, producing little in the way of commercial products, said Paul Nisbet, an analyst at JSA Research Inc. in Newport, R.I.
"The technology has not been able to be developed to the extent it becomes a viable economic product," he said.
But UTC Power officials say the long-term rewards of fuel cells could be large, not only in Europe, but also in the United States and China.
The United States remains behind Europe on fuel cell transportation. Federal officials estimate that the United States has nine fuel cell buses operating. Several new test projects are in the works, including Hartford, where the bus will begin running on prominent routes this winter.
At Thursday's event announcing the Connecticut project, U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, said the government should buy and use fuel cell vehicles - from mail trucks to school buses - to push the private sector in the same direction.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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