Shifting to Hydrogen Power in Appalachia

  • Author: Laurel Schwartz
  • Date: April 16, 2024

Potomac Valley Transit Authority (PVTA), which serves five counties in the Appalachian Mountains, is using a $4.57 million RAISE grant to begin a shift from carbon to hydrogen fuel cell powered transit vehicles.

PVTA serves a geographic area with a population density of about 35 people per square mile, providing non-emergency medical transportation for residents who have to travel as much as 1.5 hours for treatments. The terrain they cover is mountainous, and winters can see as much as 100” of snow.

In 2021, President Biden issued an executive order that created a goal for 100% zero-emission vehicle acquisitions by 2030. In response to this direction, teams from the PVTA and West Virginia’s Department of Transportation PVTA and West Virginia researched existing electric vehicle options for their routes, but existing products didn’t fit their needs.

“We have routes where we take people to a specific plant location every 12 hours,” explained PVTA Communications Director Suzanne Park. “With a short charging window, we’re very limited on what we can do,” she said.

To help curb its carbon emissions, PVTA is instead planning a solar-powered hydrogen fuel plant that will fuel green hydrogen vehicles. Hydrogen vehicles are estimated to be able to travel as much as 250 miles per gallon of fuel, and only emit water from their tail pipe. When constructed, the project will include a solar photovoltaic array that will help power the hydrogen plant. Fuel generated at the plant will power the hydrogen fuel cell-powered transit vehicles.

Getting to Zero Emissions

Plans for PVTA’s hydrogen fuel plant grew out of the proposed ARCH2 Appalachian Regional Clean Hydrogen Hub, a regional hydrogen network that will supply energy to communities across West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky.

“Sen. Manchin’s office reached out early on in the project,” said Park, referring to the West Virginia Senator. “They told us this was program was coming up and asked us if we’d like to sign on as a partner and supporter.”

While PVTA isn’t directly participating in the ARCH2 program, they’re excited that their work will complement the project.

“This can become a benchmark for rural transit in America. We deal with every challenge that most of America faces with most of their rural public transit,” Park said.

PVTA’s team has already been collaborating with colleagues in Stark County, Ohio, which currently has the largest fleet of hydrogen-fueled buses in the U.S. outside of California. They are also working with the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District in Illinois, which already generates some of its hydrogen using electricity from an array of solar panels.


One of the largest obstacles Park and her team has faced has been educating their community about how hydrogen fuel works and addressing safety concerns. When introducing the program to groups, Park said that community members often reference the Hindenburg Dirigible explosion in 1937, when a German airship using hydrogen as its lifting gas, exploded in New Jersey. (Historians speculate that the Hindenburg may have been brought down by an act of sabotage rather than a hydrogen gas leak.)

When asked about the safety of again using hydrogen, Park highlights the advances in preventing and detecting leaks since the height of zeppelins in the 1930s. As a non-toxic element, she explains, hydrogen is often safer to handle than many fuels commonly used today.

“We’re just changing the fuel source,” Park tells them.


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