Stark County to use clean energy in buses

Stark County will soon become home to the largest fleet of zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell-powered buses outside of California.

Stark Area Regional Transit Authority held a ground-breaking ceremony Tuesday for the transit authority’s new hydrogen fueling $1.6 million facility off Gateway Boulevard Southeast in Canton that will service the seven-bus fleet when completed.

The fleet of clean-energy buses will run on hydrogen, producing electricity to power the buses without burning anything. The only byproduct will be water.

“This puts us on the map as leaders of the fuel cell industry,” SARTA marketing manager Kristie Maher-Petty said, explaining that many trends begin in California and trickle eastward, consistently leaving Ohio straggling behind. However, she said, the clean-energy buses will put Ohio on the forefront of the trend and allow surrounding states to catch on sooner than usual.

Among speakers at the ceremony was Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor, who was enthusiastic about Ohio’s new innovative role.

“These are federal funds that could’ve been used elsewhere, but ODOT [Ohio Department of Transportation] was determined and understood that this was a very important and worthy project for our state,” Taylor said in opening comments. “It is a fact, this is the way of the future, and I’m glad to say Ohio is participating in leading the way to that future.”

The buses will begin operating later this year after the ODOT-funded facility is completed. Each bus cost between $500,000 and $1 million, Maher-Petty said. The purchase price of a diesel-fuel bus is between $300,000 and $600,000, according to the Federal Transit Administration website.

SARTA worked with CALSTART, a national coalition of companies dedicated to clean transportation, to secure funding for the project and received grants from the Federal Transit Administration to purchase the buses.

The buses will play a significant role in pollution reduction. According to the Federal Transit Administration, each cell-powered bus reduces carbon emissions by 100 tons annually.

Fuel cells bring more to the table than just clean energy. Buses operating on hydrogen fuel cells nearly double the mileage of buses running on diesel fuel. Their cost of operation is also much cheaper, saving more than $37,000 per year, per vehicle according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“This puts us in a leadership position in the industry to show how alternative energies can make sense in a green perspective and dollar and cents perspective,” said SARTA Executive Director Kirt Conrad, who has been looking into fuel cell energy since 2005.

The advantages don’t stop there. The clean buses operate as normal buses do, but they are quieter, provide a smoother ride and don’t release an odor.

Conrad said he was initially attracted to fuel cell energy when he learned its process didn’t involve burning fossil fuels, but he was hooked by its benefit to the state.

“We’re trying to position Ohio competitively in the next evolution of how transportation is done,” Conrad said.

With a long list of visible benefits, Maher-Petty said the only disadvantage of the technology is its cost. However, she said manufacturing prices will fall as more people use the technology.

Theresa Cottom can be reached at 330-996-3216