Risky Behavior

SunLine Takes a risk with new technology and comes out on top.


Surprisingly, the SunLine Board was seriously considering a switch to hydrogen power back in '94, before the conversion to CNG. Although the technology wasn't road ready at the time, the Agency has since wasted no time getting hydrogen buses to test.

In 1990, SunLine saw an opportunity to bring together a solar power test, a hydrogen generation test and a hydrogen bus test together into one grand project. That was the year that the Agency built a solar-powered hydrogen formulation plant to produce hydrogen fuel for its first hydrogen test bus, powered by a Ballard fuel cell.

Today, SunLine produces enough hydrogen to power its two hydrogen-fueled buses (one powered by a UTC Power fuel cell, and another powered by the Ford V-10 hydrogen internal combustion engine), as well as two hydrogen/compressed natural gas (HCNG) buses.

General manager Oglesby is rightly pleased with his fleet of hydrogen buses, pointing out that the two pure hydrogen-powered buses are zero-emission vehicles, and the HCNG buses are meeting 2007 EPA NOx emissions standards today. And each of these 40-foot buses is in revenue service every day. And, naturally, each of them is part of an ongoing test.

Any one of these buses would be a standout in any fleet, but SunLine's new fuel cell bus steals the show. The A330 bus was manufactured in Antwerp, Belgium by VanHool, but the fuel cell was designed by United Technologies Corporation Fuel Cells of South Windsor, CT. The fuel cell was installed by ISE Corporation in Poway, CA, and the bus was delivered to SunLine in November, 2005.

"I take pride in the fact that we have the technology but we don't put it up on a pedestal," Oglesby says. "The first step is here now."

HYDROGEN MAINTENANCE

As intimidated as Edwards and his maintenance crew were by their first CNG engines 11 years ago, they are surprisingly accepting of the current crop of hydrogen powerplants.

"Obviously, our technicians are used to gaseous fuels, and hydrogen is a gaseous fuel," Edwards says. "It has some differences, obviously, so it's still a good challenge for them; it keeps them sharp. They love working on new stuff; it gives them a cutting edge.

"Hydrogen technology is still in the beta form," he continues. "It's ready for us to test it, break it, make it work, make it not work, get the bugs out of it."

"The technicians are excited, because they're learning a craft, and with the hydrogen hybrid internal combustion engine vehicle, what's needed to maintain the vehicle is easily taught, and our maintenance people have just taken to it like fish to water," says Oglesby. "These guys are specialists in oddities. So now, just give them another one; they're up for the task."

FUTURE TESTS

If you go by the SunLine experience, once a fleet starts testing new equipment, it's very difficult to break the habit. SunLine has developed such a reputation for testing that many major component suppliers come to them for help developing and testing new technology.

In recent years, SunLine has tested electric fan motors for a major supplier, Federal-Mogul has worked with the Agency to test a new severe heat wheel end seal, and Delco Remy is currently testing new alternators on SunLine buses. Toyota, Mitsubishi, Honda, Ford and Peterbilt have all tested new vehicle technologies with SunLine, and the phone keeps ringing.

On reflection, it's not hard to understand why Edwards and Oglesby have become habitual technology testers. It's a win-win proposition for their fleet and their riders. "We've been able to take some of those technologies that we've tested and see them to fruition, by putting them on our buses," Edwards says. "To me, that's part of why we do this, is to see if these technologies work, and if they do, how do you get them on the new trucks? How do you get them on the new buses?

"Sometimes we can get grant money to do something, and then at the end of that grant period we end up with a piece of equipment that we own that didn't cost us much, aside from some sweat and blood," he continues. "The other thing we get is that our technicians stay on top of the technologies. And it gives the agency a chance to get publicity; in turn, if our elected officials in Washington notice this little 50-bus transit agency getting that much recognition, when money comes down the pike sometimes we are able to get a lot of transit-related things, to get money to put buses on the streets. So it's a little unusual for a small transit fleet like this to do as much branding as we have, but everybody knows SunLine, whether they like us or don't like us."

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