Whistler’s Hydrogen Bus Scheme Fizzles

Not quite a “FastFerry” debacle, but the hydrogen bus scheme was one of dreams, by a premier with very little “cred” in providing affordable public transit.

Zwei knew that the hydrogen bus would flop, because the major companies that provide buses, trams and trains, backed off hydrogen fuel cell powered transit vehicles almost a decade ago. The problem was the same as now being experienced in Whistler, the hydrogen powered bus costs a lot more to operate than conventional diesel buses.

Until major public transportation suppliers perfect an affordable platform for hydrogen fueled transit vehicles, the hydrogen bus will remain a pipe dream.

Whistlerai??i??s hydrogen fuel cell bus program in jeopardy

High costs, lack of local infrastructure could doom grand scheme

ai???It is expensive to maintain and expensive to fuel,ai??i?? BC Transit says of the buses in its hydrogen fuel cell fleet in Whistler.

The future of the Whistlerai??i??s hydrogen fuel cell buses ai??i?? the largest fleet in the world ai??i?? is in doubt after BC Transit said it cannot afford to continue to run and maintain the fleet when the $89-million demonstration program wraps up next spring.

Information obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request by the Canadian Autoworkersai??i?? Union 333 suggests Whistlerai??i??s 20 hydrogen fuel cell buses cost three times more for maintenance and fuel costs than the conventional Nova diesel buses they replaced in 2009.

BC Transit deployed the hydrogen bus fleet in 2009 as part of a grand scheme by Gordon Campbellai??i??s Liberals to showcase fuel cell technology during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games and have a ai???hydrogen highwayai??? stretching from Whistler to California.

That didnai??i??t happen and hydrogen is now trucked from Quebec every 10 days, instead of from a hoped-for fuelling station in B.C. Much-hyped plans for growth in the fuel cell market, which would have pushed down the costs for infrastructure and parts, also didnai??i??t materialize, which means BC Transit is paying a higher price for maintenance and labour for hydrogen buses compared with the diesel buses.

The buses ai??i?? which cost $2.1 million each, about four times the price of a diesel bus ai??i?? are powered by hydrogen fuel cells provided by Burnabyai??i??s Ballard Power Systems. They produce no greenhouse gas emissions and can be twice as energy-efficient as conventional buses. Eight hydrogen tanks hold in total about 60 kilograms of hydrogen, on which the bus should be able to travel 500 kilometres.

But a midterm evaluation included in the FOI information suggests the average fuel range is below the amount specified in the contract and is worse during the winter months, when water in the fuel cells can freeze and prevent the buses from starting or running efficiently. It notes hydrogen fuel costs, at an average $2.28/km, are three times the cost of diesel, while maintenance costs $1 per kilometre, compared with 65 cents/km for diesel buses.

ai???It is expensive to maintain and expensive to fuel,ai??? BC Transit spokeswoman Meribeth Burton said.

The hydrogen fleet has been integrated into the regular operations of Whistlerai??i??s transit system, accounting for two-thirds of all buses in the resort municipality. Whistler and BC Transit, which is responsible for transit systems outside Metro Vancouver, share the fleetai??i??s operating costs. The province pays another $1.8 million annually to cover the incremental costs of the hydrogen fuel cell project over the five years.

The resort municipality pays about 46 per cent of the fleet operating costs through property taxes and fares, which cost $2.50 per passenger ride.

Burton noted that while her organization had ai???anticipated surprisesai??? when the program started, it isnai??i??t sure what is going to happen next March, especially if the province decides it will no longer contribute the additional $1.8 million. If that happens, she said, the hydrogen buses could be sold and replaced with diesel or other alternatives because the hydrogen costs are too much for BC Transit and Whistler to bear.

ai???Without the annual support for the incremental costs, it would not be feasible,ai??? Burton said. ai???We will not be able to assume those costs. It will be up to the province to decide what we do next.ai???

Burton maintains BC Transit was excited about the scope and size of the project, which has recorded three million passenger trips since it started. But while many parts of the system were successful, she said, others fell short.

ai???On many levels it has been a success story,ai??? she said. ai???Weai??i??ve learned a lot about the technology and it was an opportunity to do something really unique in the market. Weai??i??ll have to see what the future holds.ai???

Ben Williams, president of CAW 333 in Victoria, maintains the hydrogen buses should be scrapped and the money used to provide transit in other areas of the province, such as Victoria. It added it doesnai??i??t make sense to haul fuel from Quebec when the idea is to run the buses to reduce carbon and greenhouse gas emissions.

ai???I wasnai??i??t surprised to be seeing this unbelievable cost when theyai??i??re actually trucking the hydrogen from Quebec,ai??? Williams said. ai???As it stands now itai??i??s not viable ai??i?? even though itai??i??s in Whistler, it affects riders in Victoria. Money is so tight when it comes to transit systems in the first place.ai???

Whistler municipal officials declined to comment, referring any questions to BC Transit.

Burton expects a decision will be made soon on whether to keep the buses after next spring, noting it will take time to order new buses, if thatai??i??s the route the province wants to take.

B.C. Transportation Minister Todd Stone was not available for an interview Monday, but ministry spokesman Robert Adam said in an email that more information should be available in a couple of weeks.

ai???We are working with BC Transit and industry partners and reviewing the demonstration pilot,ai??? he wrote.

TransLink, which runs Metro Vancouverai??i??s transit system, does not have any hydrogen buses, according to spokeswoman Jiana Ling.



5 Responses to “Whistler’s Hydrogen Bus Scheme Fizzles”
  1. Haveacow says:

    I have a friend who works at NASA in the Marshal Space Flight Center in Huntsville Alabama, his name is Arshad he is an actual rocket scientist (space propulsion engineer with several patents under his belt). A few years ago we had a discussion around the concept of hydrogen fuel cells powering ground vehicles. Though he is very positive that in the future it will be our main form of vehicle propulsion he mentioned that, for the next decade or so there is still one omnipresent issue, hydrogen fuel cells engines are essentially an electrically powered vehicle with all its problems. Until the power, speed and range issues are finally solved or at least brought somewhat close to the performance of a weak gas engine, it will continue to be an expensive to operate somewhat under performing technology.

    Zweisystem replies: I have been told the same thing from a “Marine Engineer”, who said that hydrogen fuel cell powered submarines were the best use of hydrogen today because the ‘power’ output from a fuel cell motor can’t match the demands of a bus, but in a submarine, the hydrogen fuel cell was a natural in charging batteries making hydrogen fuel cell subs a sort of poorman’s nuclear submarine only quieter.

    Some years ago, TransLink was showing off a Ballard powered bus to a bunch of visiting engineers and the bus got stuck on a hill, requiring everyone on board to push it off the road!

  2. Keith says:

    The concept of Hydrogen power is wonderful and many parties are still working on viable models. On the one hand it can be viewed as an expensive experiment. however, from a research viewpoint it may be a bit excessive but money well spent. It shows the shortcomings and where improvements are needed and likely if you ask any researcher it may provide valuable information in the furtherance of the cause.

    So, I ask the question from an R&D viewpoint is the money really wasted? Yes, it is expensive but research does cost and this is very practical albeit before its time.

  3. Haveacow says:

    Arshad mentioned that the current form of vehicle fuel cell system is essentially a chemical charger of batteries. His idea was closer to the space based system of using hydrogen plates made out of some type of what he called crystallized hydrogen as part of a battery itself instead of functioning as a glorified battery charger. The more pure form he said is what is used in space vehicles like the ISS and is much more efficient but, very expensive to make. They are also do not require massive amounts of pressurized hydrogen gas and tanks that can leak with sometimes horrific results. The Space Shuttle Challenger was using hydrogen, except in liquid form. Though the gas he said is stable it doesn’t really put the right kind of image vehicle companies want. I joked, wow great Arshad, your can call your new family car the Hindenburg! He laughed.

  4. eric chris says:

    Of course, no one at BC Transit objected to the stupidity of fuel cells for transit and just did as he or she was told by the Ministry of Transportation which maintains that it never interferes in the way that transit is run by BC Transit and TransLink. I see.

    Oh well, just do your job, gas Jews if you’re a Nazi or build sky train lines at TransLink or purchase fuel cell buses at BC Transit – it is all the same – mindless schmucks doing their jobs. Outstanding.

  5. Haveacow says:

    Actuality I remember when they started the bus at Whistler it was in the national news. It started a debate here locally about whether we should be doing bold experiments like this with transit vehicles. I usually came on the side of try it as long as it is only a single or a very small number but, then don’t start whining about the cost afterwards, remember its an experiment, not all of them work. However, if just doesn’t work don’t keep plugging away year after year running up needless costs. My guess there is very little oversight about this vehicle program.