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New Zealand's first hydrogen bus takes its maiden voyage, as Auckland grapples with its transport emissions

As New Zealand’s first hydrogen-powered bus took off on its maiden voyage in Auckland yesterday afternoon, hardly a murmur could be heard, nor was exhaust gas coming out of its tail end. 

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Phil Goff says the city will be trialling the bus to see how it runs and how much it will cost. Source: 1 NEWS

The bus's departure from Botany Town Centre shortly after 1pm marked the beginning of a two-year trial for Auckland Transport. The trial will compare the hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicle’s performance and its operating costs to similar diesel and electric buses doing the same route.

The prototype’s trial marks the next step of Auckland Transport's push to achieve an emissions-free bus fleet by 2030.

Bus drivers had been testing the $1.175 million prototype bus on the road, initially without passengers, after it was unveiled at Ports of Auckland at the end of March. 

Bus driver Roanne Paea told 1 NEWS yesterday that even though it was only her second day driving the hydrogen bus, she enjoyed the technology.

“It’s a totally new challenge for us. We’re going into hydrogen gas and electricity,” Paea said.

“It runs beautiful. It’s like you’re on a cushion of air … smooth as mustard.”

Operator Howick and Eastern will trial the bus on the 70 route — one of Auckland’s busiest — connecting East Auckland to the city centre through Panmure train station. The bus will be refuelled at the Ports of Auckland with green hydrogen.

Howick and Eastern general manager Sheryll Otway said driver-only trials of the bus so far had gone “exceptionally well”, and staff were excited. 

Over the next two years, Otway said she would look at the bus’ reliability and comfort.

“Success for me is to have another vehicle in the New Zealand market that is just as fine as any other vehicle that we run and has zero emissions.”

Passenger Julias said it was his first time on the 70 route, but he was a frequent public transport user.

He said the ride felt “just like a normal bus”, but was quieter.

Also among the bus’s first passengers was Auckland Councillor Paul Young, who said he was “quite excited” about hydrogen technology. 

“We have climate change issues, and so using this type of public transport is good for our environment.”

Why hydrogen?

At the bus’s unveiling last month, Mayor Phil Goff said while the council's focus was to electrify its vehicles and buses, it was also important to explore the option of hydrogen-powered vehicles.

Goff said hydrogen buses, in future, could complement the city’s growing electric bus fleet.

With transport making up 40 per cent of the city’s overall emissions, it was important for Auckland Council to take the lead, he added.

Matt Lowrie, the editor of transport and urban design blog Greater Auckland, said the hydrogen bus trial was “obviously a very positive thing”. 

Lowrie said the bus would not only reduce emissions, it would also make roads quieter and reduce air pollution from diesel buses.

But, he questioned the choice of a hydrogen fuel cell bus, given electric buses were already performing “very well” in Auckland and overseas. 

“There are fewer options available [for hydrogen buses] as far as I’m aware, and battery [electric] buses are becoming very common in many cities around the world,” Lowrie said.

“So, there is a huge market for those and a lot more research and development going into them.”

The hydrogen bus cost $1.175 million and took Kiwi company Global Bus Ventures a year to build in Christchurch. In 2018, when Auckland Transport introduced two electric buses for its City Link service as a trial, each bus and charger cost $840,000 each

“That’s not to say hydrogen buses aren’t a solution, that’s probably what this trial will find out. But, the cost of just one bus is over a million dollars and you need the specialists and the equipment and all the rest of it that comes with that,” Lowrie said. 

When considering costs, though, Howick and Eastern’s Otway said people also needed to look at the vehicle’s running costs over its lifetime. 

“To be fair to the trial, I think we have to wait and see what the outcomes are on that,” she said.

“It’s the first build. Any prototype or bespoke vehicle, there’s always going to be that high cost. As they keep building, the cost comes down.

“Look at the EVs originally when they came on the market. They were a lot more expensive than what they are today.”

She said the trial would allow people to “tell us what they think”.

“They can take an EV one day, the hydrogen the next, a double-decker the next.”

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Howick and Eastern general manager Sheryll Otway says hydrogen technology is evolving. Source: 1 NEWS

The three-axle bus is Auckland Transport’s biggest single-deck bus to date and can fit 43 seated and 31 standing adults. 

The bus has the capacity to carry about 30kg of hydrogen, meaning it can travel up to 380km, enough for a day’s worth of service, before needing to be refilled.

It’s powered by four hydrogen fuel cells, which converts chemical energy into electrical energy through the movement of charged hydrogen ions, which generate current. 

Auckland Transport’s new ‘metro de-carbonisation manager’

Two months into the newly-created role as Auckland Transport’s “metro de-carbonisation manager”, Darek Koper is overseeing the city’s initiatives to de-carbonise its public transport. 

When asked why Auckland Transport had decided to also trial a hydrogen bus instead of sticking with electric buses, Koper said overseas trials showed the technology could be commercially viable in the future. But, this needed to be looked at in a New Zealand context.

“Currently, there is no economic advantage or cost advantage to operate hydrogen buses,” he said.

“This is why we have invested in a lot of prototypes — not only to demonstrate that hydrogen buses can be developed and effective for New Zealand markets where we have slightly different design requirements from buses that are readily available in European, American or Asian markets, but also to test whether this technology would be easy to implement.”

Koper, who was previously Auckland Transport’s manager of bus services over its nine operators, said this meant developing infrastructure to produce and refuel the buses.

“It’s almost like a chicken and egg situation. Nobody wants to invest in hydrogen manufacturing or production and dispensing facilities unless there is a guarantee of uptake. 

“You can't guarantee uptake in terms of using the fuel for electric buses or cars unless there are willing participants in the supply chain to manufacture equipment and use that equipment.”

Auckland is behind European cities like Versailles, Cologne, Frankfurt, and Rotterdam, where fuel cell electric buses are already widely used.

But, Koper said being a “close follower” was advantageous because it could learn from other countries. 

“We [New Zealand] are too small. We have very limited funding in order to be extravagant and to go out with untested technology.”

Auckland’s journey to zero-emissions transport

The hydrogen bus trial forms part of Auckland Transport’s efforts to reach zero emissions for Auckland’s entire bus fleet by 2030. 

Currently, Auckland’s fleet of more than 1350 buses are largely fuelled by diesel. In the 2017-2018 financial year, the fleet emitted more than the equivalent of 93,200 tonnes of CO2.

However, reaching the 2030 target, expedited from the originally-planned 2040, is subject to additional funding. Transitioning to green technology is expected to cost about $350 million over a 20-year period because of the shorter timeframe, according to the second version of Auckland Transport’s Low Emissions Roadmap.

Additionally, the roadmap estimates it would cost an additional $164 million to run bus services between 2020 and 2030, when compared to the diesel fleet, as the quicker transition is completed. 

But, it’s expected operating zero-emissions buses would be cheaper in the long run. 

Koper said Auckland Transport was currently ahead of its roadmap with 20 electric buses already on the roads and more on the way in the coming weeks.

Otway from Howick and Eastern said investing in new technologies like hydrogen buses would be a big risk for operators and many wouldn’t be able to do it without help from council.

She said getting funding for the hydrogen bus meant they had “an opportunity we probably wouldn’t have had otherwise”. 

Goff has signalled funding would need to be in conjunction with central Government, with neither having yet committed the money for the transition to be completed by 2030.

At the end of last year, councillors committed to stop buying new diesel buses from 2021, four years earlier than its initial target.

Meanwhile, Koper continued to call for funding to back up the political will for climate change action. 

“Those transitions require an additional level of funding, and that funding is often difficult to get unless you have the political support on the direction that we’re going. 

“Having political support, both at local and central Government, makes the conversation about the level of funding required to transition to low-emission technologies a lot easier,” he said.

But, even if Auckland’s bus fleet goes full zero-emissions, Auckland Council’s draft Regional Land Transport Plan (RLTP) to 2031 estimates 80 per cent of the city’s transport emissions come from private vehicles.

Car refuelling with hydrogen (file picture). Source: istock.com

The plan also noted that even as public transport use increased, the distance people were travelling in their cars was also on the rise. Under current projections for de-carbonising people’s private vehicles, it said “significant reductions” to greenhouse gas emissions won’t be seen until 2035. 

The RLTP proposed that part of the solution was to encourage “mode shift”, or shifting people away from travelling in a private vehicle to public transport, cycling or walking. 

The draft plan also included an indicative list of transport projects and spending agreed to by Auckland Council and central Government up to 2031 as part of the $31.4 billion Auckland Transport Alignment Project package

The package focused on encouraging “mode shift”, amid an existing public transport system that the draft RLTP itself said “is simply not fast enough to compete with private car travel, even during the peak periods”. 

Without changes elsewhere, on its own, the package said by 2031, it would end up increasing transport emissions by six per cent. 

Greater Auckland’s Lowrie said Auckland’s overall move to zero-emissions transport lacked significant investment to encourage “mode shift” and needed more “ambition”.

He said achieving significant “mode shift” wouldn’t solely come from investing in new technology.  

“They’re not moving fast enough. The bigger piece to all of this is that a lot of our plans, and even the Climate Change Commission draft report and the feedback around it that we’re aware of, relies too heavily on ‘let’s just convert our buses or our car fleet to electric’,” he said.

“There are a lot of opportunities. People are ultimately rational, and if we provide good quality alternatives to driving, people will use that quite comfortably. We just have to invest and provide in that. 

“Sometimes it's going to be making hard decisions. It might be replacing car parking with cycleways or busways and what have you. 

“The challenge at the moment is, often, there’s a lot of business as usual and resistance to changes.”

Lowrie is hopeful hydrogen and electric buses could enhance passengers’ experiences of public transport and entice them to make the shift. 

Koper agreed with the need for “mode shift”, given the impact private vehicles were having on the environment.

He said ongoing projects, like the building of the Eastern Busway that the 70 route passes by, would help to promote greater public transport use.