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This transit agency could be the first in the Northwest to use hydrogen-powered buses

caption: Community Transit's first hydrogen-powered bus, on May 20, 2024, in Everett. Whether a hydrogen vehicle is "green" depends heavily on how its fuel is produced.
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Community Transit's first hydrogen-powered bus, on May 20, 2024, in Everett. Whether a hydrogen vehicle is "green" depends heavily on how its fuel is produced.
Community Transit

Move over, electric buses — another (potentially) clean option is coming to the Northwest.

A transit agency in Western Washington aims to be the first in the Northwest to run buses on hydrogen.

Lewis County Transit in Chehalis is testing three of the hydrogen buses.

"It's the opportunity to start shifting away from fossil fuels," said Joe Clark, head of Lewis County Transit. "We have electric buses also. We have hydrogen buses. We don't think it's an either-or. There's room for both."

RELATED: A lot more electric buses are coming to Western Washington roads

Hydrogen fuel cells emit no air pollution, only water. But manufacturing hydrogen fuel is usually a highly polluting process, requiring large amounts of energy.

Nearly all commercially produced hydrogen in the United States is made by using high-temperature steam (at 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit or higher) to peel hydrogen atoms away from methane molecules in natural gas, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Lewis Transit is buying an electrolyzer to produce its own hydrogen fuel from water, using 99% clean electricity to do so.

"We wouldn't be using coal or natural gas, which are contributors to the not-so-clean hydrogen," Clark said.

Lewis Transit plans to use hydrogen buses on its long-distance routes, like the commuter lines to Olympia and Kelso.

Clark said hydrogen buses can travel farther than electric buses, even those that can recharge during layovers, especially during cold weather.

Clark said the standard range on an electric bus is up to about 260 miles, while hydrogen buses can range between 275 and 325 miles on one 37.5-kilogram tank of hydrogen. Clark said the next generation of hydrogen buses will have a range of about 500 miles.

RELATED: 1 in 6 new Washington cars are electric. The state aims for more

The price tag on hydrogen buses is higher than their diesel or electric counterparts. But Clark said a hydrogen bus costs less to operate: about $223,000 vs. about $300,000 for a diesel bus.

Lewis County Transit won't be footing the bills on its own, though.

Clark said the agency has received money from the state Legislature and Centralia Coal Transition Grants, intended to help Lewis and south Thurston Counties transition away from coal-fired power generation. The program followed an agreement to shut down TransAlta’s coal-fired plant in Centralia -- the state's largest single source of climate-damaging carbon dioxide emissions -- in 2025.

With that additional financial assistance, the agency received its first hydrogen bus in March, Clark said, with the first passengers expected to take a ride by August. Lewis County Transit expects two more hydrogen buses by September and another two in 2025.

Community Transit in Snohomish County also plans to start testing a hydrogen bus in the fall.

"Initially we will be trucking in hydrogen while exploring long-term, sustainable options," Community Transit spokesperson Monica Spain said in an email.

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