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UTC’s Fuel Cell Bus Gets Mixed Reviews

Federal report cites maintenance issues with Star Shuttle transporter

Jason Millman

November 20, 2008

A preliminary federal report on Connecticut Transit’s $2.4 million prototype fuel cell hybrid bus found the bus’ first 15 months of operation were marked by limited availability because of maintenance issues. However, the transportation agency and UTC Power said they are pleased with the progress of improving the region’s first fuel cell bus.

The bus, which serves downtown Hartford’s Star Shuttle route, has a fuel cell from South Windsor-based UTC Power, a unit of United Technologies Corp.

Since it was introduced in Hartford in April 2007, the bus has faced problems with degradation of the fuel cell power system, battery integration, heating and air conditioning systems, maximum speed and operating in slippery conditions, according to the report issued by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

The bus was available 54 percent of the time during the survey period, falling well short of the 85 percent target availability for CTTransit buses. The report noted that of the times the bus was unavailable, fuel cell propulsion was the reason 38 percent of the time.

Stephen Warren, CTTRANSIT assistant general manager of maintenance services, said the fuel cell bus performed better than expected during its first 15 months, but he acknowledged that it has required a good amount of tinkering.

Tinkering Needed

“Eighty-five percent is what you expect from a standard diesel bus, but you don’t realistically expect to be there at this point in the game [with a fuel cell bus],” Warren said.

Over the past year and a half, UTC Power has been working to improve the durability of its fuel cell, said Mike Tosca, director of sales and marketing.

In addition to the Hartford bus, UTC Power has five other buses running around the world, including four in California and one in Belgium.

Analyzing bus performance in different climates has given UTC Power a better idea of how to improve the bus’ heating and air conditioning unit as well as it performance in slippery conditions, which were both targeted as problem areas in the report.

The fuel cell bus labor hours were nine times greater than diesel buses, and costs were 17.6 percent greater during the survey period. Those numbers have come down significantly since June, as modifications continue to be made to the bus, Warren said.

“The bus is running very well, and the next report is going to be very favorable,” he said.

The NREL report said the fuel cell bus would not be able to travel on the highway because the Belgium-based Van Hool company, one of the bus’ designers, recommended the bus not exceed 48 miles per hour. That’s well short of the necessary 55 miles mph for highway traffic.

Top Speed: 48

Van Hool lowered the maximum speed from 65 mph to 48 mph because of concerns about the bus’ weight distribution. Warren said that has not been a factor for the CTTransit bus because it has only operated in Hartford. He noted that about 80 percent of its service is on local routes.

The next generation of fuel cell buses will have lower hydrogen capacity, reducing the bus’ weight and allowing for more space for passengers, Warren said.

A Federal Transit Administration grant will go toward the replacement of the fuel cell power system in the existing bus and the purchase of another fuel cell bus for delivery in 2009. In addition to four next-generation fuel cell buses scheduled to be delivered in Connecticut starting sometime next year, eight will be sent to California. The next report is expected to be released early 2009.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Business Journal. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Business Journal Archives at http://www.hartfordbusiness.com/archives.php.
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