A fleet of 11 hydrogen fuel cell electric transit buses just like this will soon be cruising the roadways of Humboldt. | Photo: Ryan Burns


Humboldt is once again leading the charge in clean energy innovation on the North Coast. The California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA) recently awarded a $38.7 million grant to the Humboldt Transit Authority (HTA) to fund a fleet of zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell electric buses to serve local routes and connect riders to Mendocino County and, ultimately, the San Francisco Bay Area. The fleet will be the first of its kind in Northern California.

The grant funds will enable the HTA to purchase 11 hydrogen fuel cell electric buses, install hydrogen fueling infrastructure and provide public transportation services to the Eureka Regional Transit & Housing Center, or EaRTH Center, which will serve as the City’s future mass transit hub and provide housing for students, traveling medical staff and working residents.

“We are in the beginning stages of converting our entire fleet of 32 buses to zero-emission buses … to connect Humboldt County residents with national connections, such as with Amtrak, the SMART train, and bus service to larger cities,” Greg Pratt, general manager at the HTA, told the Outpost. “Replacing 11 of our diesel buses with hydrogen fuel cell buses will eliminate over 120,000 gallons of diesel used every year for public transportation. …We still have a lot of work to do but this is a great start to reaching our goal.”

CalSTA awarded nearly $800 million in grants to fund 23 zero-emission transit and intercity rail service projects across California to further the state’s Climate Action Plan for Transportation Infrastructure (CAPTI) and help public transportation agencies comply with the California Air Resource Board’s Innovative Clean Transit (ICT) rule which prohibits public transit agencies from purchasing fossil fuel-powered vehicles after 2029.

Peter Lehman, founding director of the Schatz Energy Research Center at Cal Poly Humboldt, helped HTA apply for the grant. Lehman has been working on hydrogen and fuel cell technology for the last 30 years. He helped build the nation’s first solar-powered hydrogen fueling station in the Coachella Valley in the 1990s, and in the 2000s the Center helped AC Transit, an Oakland-based public transit agency, acquire some of the first hydrogen fuel cell buses.

“And now we’re bringing them to Humboldt County,” Lehman told the Outpost. “It’s been a long time coming and it will open up the opportunity for people to adopt hydrogen fuel cell vehicles for zero-emission transport all the way from small cars to big trucks. It’s really wonderful that this project is happening and that we’re involved.”

When CalSTA contacted Lehman and Pratt to inform them that they had won the grant award, they were told that their proposal was the best in the state. “We worked really hard on it and that made us really proud,” Lehman said.

The HTA bought its first electric bus in June 2019. While the bus provides daytime service between College of the Redwoods and Cal Poly Humboldt, it does not have the capacity to take on a longer route. The new buses, which will be supplied by Alabama-based bus manufacturer New Flyer, can travel upwards of 300 miles.

“One of the things that we stressed in this grant application was establishing a connection between transit in Humboldt County and transportation hubs further south in California,” Lehman said. “New Flyer is building a better technology bus. …They have batteries but they also have a fuel cell, which is an electricity generator. So they carry their own generator on board to recharge the battery as the bus is running.”

The project has actually inspired New Flyer “build a better bus” with a larger fuel cell and more hydrogen stores on board, he added. “It will have the sufficient range to go to Ukiah and back and that’s a big deal in the whole zero-emission technology field. This project has sparked new development that will be important nationwide.”

For the last two years, the HTA has worked with the Mendocino Transit Authority to continue the route to Santa Rosa and beyond the Bay Area. The agency has also established a partnership with the Lake Transit Authority to form connections to Clear Lake, Calistoga and Napa. 

“Del Norte, Humboldt, Lake and Mendocino counties will all have the same credit card readers installed to make it easier for passengers to go from one system to another,” Pratt said. “Fare capping between agencies will be in place to limit the burden of fares to the rider.”

In addition to enhancing transit connectivity throughout Northern California, the grant will give the multimodal EaRTH Center a much-needed financial boost. Eureka City Manager Miles Slattery said the housing element of the grant application was what made the application so competitive.

“This is great news for the City of Eureka and even bigger for the local economy and transit throughout the county,” Slattery told the Outpost. “It will enhance access to our area and having access is huge.”

The EaRTH Center will serve as a mass transit hub for the county by integrating local and intercity bus service with carshare, rideshare, bicycle paths and pedestrian travel, according to the project summary. It will also provide workforce and student housing, a childcare center, retail and open space co-located with transit at the center.

The timeline for both the EaRTH Center and the new fleet of buses remains unclear, but Lehman guessed that at least some of the buses will be on the road in about 18 months. Construction on the EaRTH Center will likely begin late next year.

The full project description can be found here.