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Hele-On to Operate State’s First Hydrogen Bus

May 4, 2022, 2:30 PM HST
* Updated May 4, 1:55 PM
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Photos courtesy of Hawaiʻi County

Hawaiʻi County now has another tool to continue transitioning public transit to zero emissions by 2035.

The county Mass Transit Agency, in partnership with the Hawaiʻi Natural Energy Institute and U.S. Hybrid, has its first hydrogen-powered bus, which is being prepared for service on three routes in Kailua-Kona later this spring. According to a press release from the county, the bus is expected to travel about 100 miles a day and rotate between the three Kona routes.

“We are excited to put our vision into practice in terms of sustainable action on our island,” Mayor Mitch Roth said in the press release. “Shifting our entire county fleet to alternative fuel and electric vehicles is a priority for us, as we continue to push those in our community to consider alternative modes of transportation in a broader effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions and create a more sustainable future; for our keiki.”

A ribbon-cutting ceremony is planned this month at Kona Commons to coincide with the hydrogen bus being put into formal service.

The Hawaiʻi County Council in 2019 accepted the 21-passenger 2014 El Dorado Aero Elite, which was converted from gasoline to hydrogen powered, as a donation from the Hawaiʻi Natural Energy Institute. The Council is also awaiting delivery of two hydrogen-converted 19-passenger 2012 El Dorado Aero Elite buses donated to the county by Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. They will be delivered later this year after being upgraded with the same 40kW fuel cells and A123 Lithium-ion batteries as the 21-passenger bus.

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The first bus will be operated and maintained by Roberts Hawaiʻi until a baseyard in Kona is completed in 2025, after which time the maintenance will be transitioned to the Mass Transit Agency.

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“Hele-On is excited to be at the cutting-edge and pioneering new fuel technology to reduce our carbon footprint and provide quality service to Hawaiʻi County residents and visitors,” John Andoh, Mass Transit administrator and general manager, said in the press release. “This hydrogen bus pilot will set the framework for the MTA to consider hydrogen buses that can operate across the island in the future once a hydrogen station in Hilo is constructed.”

Additional program elements include workforce and first responders training to operate and maintain a hydrogen bus.

In 2017, the mayors of the state’s four counties committed to transitioning their public transit fleets to zero emissions by 2035. As a result, in November 2020, Hawaiʻi County Mass Transit, in partnership with Roberts Hawaiʻi, began using an electric bus in Hilo as a first step in plans to convert the entire fleet to zero-emission technology.

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“MTA is working in partnership with the state Department of Transportation and Maui and Kauaʻi to implement a zero-emission bus rollout plan, which includes the operation of battery-electric buses on each island,” the release said, adding hydrogen fuel-cell electric buses and plug-in battery-electric buses are being tested to determine which best meets Mass Transit’s operations, maintenance and cost needs, among other factors.

Mass Transit will begin phasing in additional zero-emission buses as part of future bus purchases in 2023. At the same time, staff will continue to analyze emerging technologies and work to secure funding for the buses’ purchase, operations, and maintenance.

“This project, part of HNEI’s hydrogen infrastructure program, supports the introduction of zero-emissions buses for public transportation and will provide valuable information to the public transportation agencies, allowing them to make more informed decisions as they transition from their legacy diesel fleets to newer vehicle technology,” Hawaiʻi Natural Energy Institute Director Rick Rocheleau said in the press release. “This project is also an important component of (Hawaiʻi Natural Energy Institute’s) mandate to help Hawaiʻi reduce its dependence on fossil fuels.”

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