The high price of going green

February 26, 2008 7:55:12 PM PST
Silicon Valley's transit system was the first in the nation to use buses with hydrogen fuel cells. After three years, the Valley Transportation Authority says it's not impressed.

VTA has 400 buses in its fleet. The three hydrogen powered ones are great for the environment but bad for the agency's bottom line.

"The costs are high and the reliability for our demonstration project was very low. It's public money and we have an obligation to report it and report it factually and that's what we've done," says Michael Burns, VTA General Manager.

This report takes a dim view of VTA's three year pilot project. It concludes the cost per mile of operating a diesel bus is $1.61. That compares to $51.66 a mile to run a hydrogen bus.

Part of the problem is the prototype buses break down a lot and require expensive custom parts. However, California is committed to making public transit greener.

Starting in 2012, there's a new mandate for any transit agency in California with 200 or more diesel buses. At that time, 15 percent of all new buses purchased must be zero emissions.

A spokeswoman with the state air resources board told ABC7 News that it is not daunted by the early demonstration costs and says "the next generation of buses will be much more efficient and in fact, be cheaper to run than diesel."

Diesel buses spew out cancer causing pollutants, while hydrogen fuel cells convert hydrogen gas and oxygen from the air into electricity. The only by product is clean water.Many people say that's what matters.

"It seems like a lot of dollars in today's dollars, but as we go forward, it's going to seem like a drop in the bucket, so absolutely it's worth it," says Mike Shami, VTA rider.

"I think we can do that and have a planet as opposed to take the cheap route and lose the planet," says Judy Hill, Cupertino.

VTA's general manager is questioning the state's timeline for making buses greener.

"Looking at 2012 in my view is not realistic and I think there should be a discussion about it," says Burns.

The second phase of the regions zero-emissions project is scheduled to start in January, when 12 hydrogen powered buses are put on the streets at a cost of $36 million dollars.