Some time next year, transit riders in Montgomery County will be able to take a bus powered by the region’s water supply.

Well, not exactly the water supply — rather, the hydrogen atoms split from the water by an electrolyser, a fancy machine that a federal grant is helping to install at a county bus depot, and then pumped into fuel cells and bus batteries.

The new microgrid at the Rockville transit center, funded almost entirely by a massive investment of an undisclosed amount by a private-equity-backed energy company, will make it the largest renewable energy-powered bus depot in the nation, officials said in a news release. The center will be the first transit depot on the East Coast to produce green hydrogen on-site; the microgrid broke ground last week and should be operational next year.

The Rockville transit center and the county’s Brookville bus depot, another microgrid, illustrate how Montgomery County is doubling down on the latest electric and hydrogen fuel-cell technology to help battle climate change. If the gamble pays off, it could make the county a nationwide leader in sustainable transportation.

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“Hydrogen buses and electric buses are the wave of the future, and this technology — the mileage is improving, the range is improving, this stuff just keeps getting better,” Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said at last week’s groundbreaking.

Transportation is the leading contributor to greenhouse gas pollution In Maryland and nationally. Gov. Wes Moore has charted an ambitious course for the state to decarbonize in the coming decades, and the large Washington, D.C., suburb is on board with its own goals — an 80% carbon reduction by 2027, on its way to net-zero emissions by 2035.

“That’s [2035] around the corner, and you can’t wait two or three years to try and do this, you have to do it now,” Michael Yambrach, chief of the county’s Office of Energy and Sustainability, told reporters last week.

A recent $13 million federal grant is helping with the transition, paying for the transit hub’s electrolyser and 13 zero-emission buses. As the county replaces its fleet of roughly 300 diesel buses over the next decade, it will replace them with electric ones.

That means higher up-front costs — a new electric bus, which can have dozens of onboard batteries, costs roughly double what a diesel bus does — but Yambrach said the county will save money operating them in the long run. Diesel buses cost about 85 cents per mile to operate, he said; they anticipate that the electric buses will cost roughly 31 cents per mile in hydrogen or standard electric power.

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Montgomery County’s transportation department uses about 3.8 million gallons of fuel each year, Elrich said at last week’s event.

Getting off the grid

Electric vehicles depend on the same key infrastructure as street lights and basic household appliances — the power grid.

But U.S. power grids weren’t designed to handle the demands of today — much less the future — of so many modern gadgets and appliances relying on electricity, said Yuri Dvorkin, an engineering professor at Johns Hopkins University and member of its Sustainable Energy Institute.

“If we all start adopting electric vehicles, that will drastically increase our electricity consumption,” Dvorkin said.

And renewable energy sources like wind and solar aren’t often in the same places as the coal- and gas- powered plants that the country is moving away from. As the reliance on green electricity goes up, the U.S. will need to invest heavily to build the new and bigger distribution lines necessary to modernize the grid. The state’s data center plans make the challenge in Maryland even tougher.

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Microgrids could be a solution.

They offer flexibility in being able to integrate with the larger nearby grid but then kick into “island mode” when energy demands are at their highest. They can also more quickly adopt renewable energy sources, said Jana Gerber, president of North America microgrids at Schneider Electric, one of the project partners.

With a vast array of solar panels, an electrolyser producing hydrogen on-site and plenty of battery storage, the Rockville bus depot will be able to operate autonomously for however long officials want, they said. It will also be able to send renewable energy back into the greater area power grid.

A 3D rendering of a large complex, seen from a bird's eye view, featuring solar panels and multiple buildings.
An aerial rendering of the future Rockville bus depot that will function as its own microgrid. (Courtesy of AlphaStruxure)

“As all these entities are acquiring these vehicles and driving this energy transition, I think Montgomery County stands alone in really thinking about the energy infrastructure that has to be put in place within the context of everything else around … and taking action,” said Juan Macias, CEO of AlphaStruxure, a company backed by The Carlyle Group, a private equity giant, in financing the bus depot.

The company announced plans last year to design, build and operate a microgrid at the largest international terminal at New York City’s JFK airport. It will allow the terminal to operate at full capacity during area power disruptions and result in 38% less greenhouse gas emissions from energy sourced at the larger grid.

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The massive upfront capital necessary has been a barrier to getting microgrids to scale. The Carlyle Group has that kind of money, but AlphaStruxure and project partner Schneider Electric declined to say how much it will cost to build the microgrid at the bus depot. Montgomery County first entered into a public-private partnership with the company in 2021 for its Brookville bus depot, a similar but smaller scale microgrid project.

The arrangement has the county paying AlphaStruxure for decades to use the facilities.

Getting on board

Montgomery County has some of the state’s most heavily trafficked roads. Interstate 270 can carry more than 200,000 cars daily, and the perpetually gridlocked Capital Beltway gets even more, according to state data.

Clogged roadways make getting more people onto public transit even more important, county officials say.

The county has plans for an extensive network of bus rapid-transit lines that will snake through the county to complement local Ride On buses and connect their more sprawling locations to Metro stops and job centers. The first line in the Flash network is currently in service along Route 29, with eight others on the horizon. Just like local Ride On buses, the Flash fleet will be fully electrified over the next decade.

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The Maryland Transit Administration’s Purple Line, a light rail project currently under construction between Bethesda and New Carrollton, adds another piece to the county’s transit network.

All told, the state is going all-in on transit in the area.

The Maryland Department of Transportation funds roughly one-third of the budget for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, or Metro, and provides roughly $41 million to Montgomery County for its Ride On buses through a Locally Operated Transit Systems grant.

This article was updated to reflect that the Rockville bus depot is currently operational without the future microgrid.