By Stephen Smoot
Next month, the Potomac Valley Transit Authority will discover if they will get federal funds to start planning the development of a hydrogen fuel production center. If constructed, the eight-acre power plant and production facility will create hydrogen fuel for PVTA buses initially, possibly serving local government vehicles, and even the general public eventually.
“I feel very good about it,” said Doug Pixler, director of PVTA. “It’s a good project.”
The Biden Administration unilaterally imposed a decision to require heavy vehicles to run with zero emissions by the 2030s. Manufacturers of vehicles of all types have slowed production on traditional types of gasoline and diesel vehicles in favor of those that meet the mandate. As a result, agencies such as PVTA have tremendous difficulty in purchasing new buses.
Also, in a recent Pendleton County Commission meeting, Sheriff Chad Bowers reported similar difficulties in locating police cruisers for sale.
As a result of these moves, PVTA partnered with the West Virginia Division of Multimodal Transportation “to develop plans for a hydrogen production facility and fueling station.”
Hydrogen fuel comes in five “colors.” PVTA proposes to produce the “green” type. The fuel starts as the same water used for eating, drinking, or any other purpose. A current of electricity gets run through the water to separate the two molecules of hydrogen from the single oxygen atom.
What makes hydrogen fuel “green” is the source of energy. PVTA plans to use an eight-acre solar array constructed in Petersburg to power the electrolysis. Production will result in no polluting emissions. Pixler added that green hydrogen can also come from wind energy, such as that generated on the ridges of Grant and Mineral counties.
In other sections of the state, other entities have focused attention on “blue” hydrogen. This form comes from the separation of hydrogen atoms from natural gas. The power used to produce this could potentially come from coal fired power plants already in existence, possibly helping to support the state’s extractive industries and their vital jobs. Any polluting emissions from the production process are captured and not released into the air.
Other colors, including yellow, pink, and gray, are categorized as such based upon their production power source.
Storage will be in above ground units, much like gasoline.
Hydrogen fuel provides numerous advantages over both traditional fuel and also electric vehicles, especially in the challenging conditions found in West Virginia. Pixler explains that “hydrogen has a better range and refuels much faster than the electric. Propane has the same range, but it’s not as clean.”
Additionally, the materials needed to build hydrogen powered vehicles are mostly produced in the United States by American workers. Conversely, China has most of the factories making components for electric vehicles.
Hydrogen vehicles do more than just go from point A to point B without releasing any emissions. They save water. The engine requires air filtered of impurities to function correctly, meaning that the vehicles actually, as Pixler explains, “clean the air as you drive.”
Some have raised concerns about the safety of hydrogen fuel, worrying about incidents such as the infamous Hindenburg disaster in 1937. In that incident, a German Zeppelin using hydrogen for air buoyancy, not fuel, exploded as it crashed, killing many of its passengers during a live radio broadcast.
Suzanne Park-Lewis, who directs communications for PVTA, said, “Look at the advancements of technology since that time and the safety features created since then.” She explained that gasoline and diesel do not have a perfect safety record in the years that they have served as a primary source of fuel, but that hydrogen is “very safe.”
At first, the fuel produced will support the PVTA fleet, but Pixler has bigger plans going forward. “I think at some point in time, we will make it available to local governments,” he commented. This includes school buses and emergency response vehicles. He added that a California producer sells “to public and private entities and that funds their whole operation. Ultimately, that would be a goal to us as a revenue source.”
Funding for the project, whose first phase will cost $4.57 million, would come from the federal RAISE grant, which will be announced in June. “We got messages to Senator Manchin and Senator Capito,” Pixler stated, adding that “they will make calls to support that.” Planning and design could take 12 to 18 months with the facility’s construction potentially taking place in three to five years.
Planning will include finding the most efficient ways to get the fuel to centers of activity, such as Keyser and Romney.
Pixler and Park-Lewis also expressed excitement about the Mountain State getting involved on multiple fronts with research and development in hydrogen fuels. “We would be the perfect initiative,” Park-Lewis explained. “We have all of the variances, long distances, mountains, weather. We can test a variety of scenarios.”