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Hydrogen buses to debut


Tribune-Herald staff writer

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park expects to begin using two hybrid battery/hydrogen-fueled visitor shuttles this spring.

The hope is that the new system will help to relieve congestion along the park’s narrow, winding roads, while showing that such a task can be completed using climate-friendly technologies, said Cindy Orlando, the park superintendent.

The vehicles are 35 feet long and 8 feet wide, capable of carrying 20-25 passengers apiece. Orlando said it was important to get vehicles that were just the right size — not too big, and not too small.

“We have very narrow, historic roads in the park. It can be a tight fit in places. … That’s something we are cognizant of,” she said.

“The lack of parking spaces during certain times of the day is a problem at certain spots, like in front of Thurston Lava Tube. These are problems we’ve all been dealing with for years.”

The shuttles were purchased last year and shipped from Kansas to Honolulu late last fall, she said. They are currently undergoing a conversion process at the Hawaii Center for Advanced Transportation Technologies.

“That’s a process that involves removing all the old parts and replacing them with new parts like hydrogen fuel cells, electric motors and other things,” Orlando said.

The pilot project is being funded in part through a $989,000 research and development grant, according to a press release from the National Park Service. The park has partnered with the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute, the Hawaii Center for Advancement of Transportation Technologies, the Department of Defense, and the Federal Transit Authority, among others, for a two-year test run.

“We’ll be taking visitors around in a loop from Kilauea Iki to Thurston Lava Tube, to Puu Puai, to the station trailhead, and back,” Orlando said.

The buses will run every 20 minutes between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., seven days a week.

Use of the shuttle system will be free to visitors. She said that park officials will monitor ridership and adjust the routes accordingly during the two-year test.

Last year, the park had more than 1.3 million visitors, an increase of more than 3 percent over 2010.

“We’re a very popular destination with lots of traffic congestion,” she said. “We’ll see how some of that congestion is relieving, and the routes will be subject to change.”

According to information on the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute’s website, hydrogen for the vehicles will be supplied by the Puna Geothermal Venture plant. The hydrogen is produced through electrolysis by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen. It is considered a zero-emission process because the electricity used in the process will be generated via geothermal energy.

The hydrogen will then be transported to a dispensing station at Kilauea Military Camp, located within the national park. KMC also will provide staff to drive the shuttles.

Orlando added that the project partners will be keeping a close eye on how the equipment holds up within the unique, and corrosive, areas around the volcano.

“We’re going to be studying the operational capabilities in the park environment,” she said. “It’s very high in sulfur dioxide emissions, and add to that salt and moisture. … Also, there’s the elevation. We’ll just see how it works up here.”

The shuttles will feature wraparound artwork by University of Hawaii at Manoa graphic design students, she said.

“The vinyl wraparound will be promoting the (hydrogen) technology, as well as the park’s unique resources,” Orlando said.

Orlando said the infrastructure is in place and the park is ready to use the shuttles when they are delivered.

Email Colin M. Stewart at


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