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Red Bus Services takes hydrogen to the next level

New South Wales operator Red Bus Services has always had an eye on the environment. It took this to the next level when it began a daunting hydrogen refuelling service project in 2019.

Leanne Griffiths never would’ve conceived of running a hydrogen refuelling service station in her wildest dreams. The General Manager at Red Bus Services based in New South Wales’s Bateau Bay may struggle to believe it, but she is now helping run Australia’s first hydrogen refuelling service for buses and coaches.

It all started in 2019, when Griffiths first began discussions with the local Newcastle University about a collaboration on a hydrogen service project. In early 2020, the operator began the process of registering to build the service station. In August that year it submitted its expression of interest to the New South Wales government and waited.

The request follows a long line of eco-minded projects by Red Bus. After first operating in the Central Coast region in 1940, Red Bus took a warming to sustainability in the 1990s, when it used water harvesting techniques to run its suburban depot on water.

“The Shore family that have historically run Red Bus have always had an appreciation for the land,” Griffiths told ABC. “We have 120,000 litres of water that we collect and we don’t use any town water. Instead, we recycle our water for bus washers and steam cleaning and everything else we do.

“On our depot we have beautiful green grass that stays green even if there’s a drought because we reuse our water.”

After this, Red Bus also went on a solar voyage. Currently, nearly half of its depot electricity usage comes from solar energy. Griffiths says Red Bus can focus on the environment because its depot isn’t like other bus companies that are situated in industrial parks. Red Bus’s depot sits in the middle of a residential area, has large grass areas and a duck pond that helps it blend into the scenic Bateau Bay region.

When the Australian industry began turning to zero-emissions vehicles, Red Bus jumped on board. The operator has already trialled two electric vehicles and is waiting to trial New South Wales’s first hydrogen bus later this year when the vehicle, built by Western Sydney-based manufacturer Aluminium Revolutionary Chassis Company (ARCC), passes its testing phase.

“When the government gave us the option to start going into zero-emissions, it was awesome for us,” Griffiths says. “We don’t have any electric vehicles at the moment because we’re out of the metro bus contract zone that the NSW government is currently focusing on.

“With Newcastle hoping the Hunter can become a hydrogen hub, we want this trial to generate jobs for our community.”

When Red Bus’s neighbour in the Hunter was named by the NSW government as the hydrogen hub in 2021, Red Bus got to work. It constructed its refuelling services at its depot courtesy of a partnership with Origin Energy. Under the affiliation, Origin is providing hydrogen refuelling on site in a mobile solution. supplying hydrogen refuelling units to Red Bus to install at the station.

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Although Griffiths is excited about the results of the station so far, she admits it wasn’t an easy process. Without any Australian laws or standards to govern the development of the hydrogen refuelling service station, Red Bus, along with Origin, had to forge its own path and learn from its mistakes.

Griffiths says the operator quickly encountered many challenges that proved installing a hydrogen service isn’t as simple as ordering a diesel bowser for buses.

“One thing we realised early on in the project was that the civil costs are big because hydrogen is expensive,” Griffiths says. “Hydrogen is a dangerous good so it has to be earthed, resulting in significant costs.

“We also had to overcome the reception we initially received about placing hydrogen on our depot.”

The first challenge came down to careful designing. Red Bus hosted many consultants throughout the building process who insisted hydrogen wouldn’t safely fit on Red Bus’s depot. Griffiths says the operator worked through these issues, finding safe places to store hydrogen that was far away from other dangerous goods. The depot couldn’t have piping snaking over and under its land, so Red Bus was careful to find a particular spot to place the hydrogen away from the likes of welding equipment and diesel fuel.

When this was done, Red Bus had to answer a wealth of community questions. The mention of hydrogen caused many neighbouring citizens to be scared of what Red Bus was installing on its depot. Despite being on a 13-acre block of land that houses 120 buses, Griffiths says the operator had an obligation to help Bateau Bay residents understand the process.

“We felt it was our responsibility to educate our local residents, which took a bit longer to do,” Griffiths says. “We needed to make them feel safe and assured that we knew what we were doing.

“Our other challenges then involved getting everything compliant with Australian standards and getting enough supply of equipment to complete the project.”

Griffiths says the medium-sized operator also benefited from collaborating with other companies in the process.  The Red Bus General Manager wishes the project began construction before or after the COVID lockdowns, so she could’ve visited other projects globally to understand how best to remain safe.

“My tip would be to understand other projects that have happened around the world,” Griffiths says. “If COVID hadn’t of hit I would’ve gone to Los Angeles because they have a hydrogen bus depot plant situated there.

“I advise people to reach out to their peers to get an understanding of how it works in a commercial sense so the right collaborations can be made.”

With the hydrogen service now ready to receive its first trial bus this year, Griffiths says Red Bus is lucky its location allows for the project to be run. The station Red Bus had built was originally designed for European conditions, making it challenging for operators in mining areas or outback Australia to build a refuelling station.

In stage one of the trial, Red Bus will receive the ARCC-built vehicle in late 2022 and run it during the beginning of 2023. From there, the NSW government holds the fate of the hydrogen trial in its hands as it then decides whether to continue rolling out more hydrogen buses to Red Bus.

Regardless of what happens once the first hydrogen bus parks at Red Bus, Griffiths says the operator will always reflect on the project with satisfaction.

“When we started the project, I wanted to understand the technology and see the bus operating,” Griffiths says. “But I feel like we’ve already won by doing so much work behind the scenes.

“It’s rewarding to see it all come to fruition, to see we’re assisting a Western Sydney manufacturer in ARCC and helping them be able to sell their product is a great feeling.”

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