With just weeks to go before the 2010 Games, B.C. Transit and partners last week announced the completion of the new hydrogen fuelling facility at Nesters, as well as the final delivery of the last hydrogen buses to bring the fleet to 20 - the largest zero emissions bus fleet in the world. The buses have been on the road since mid-November with more arriving every few weeks.
B.C. Transit and the province provided $45 million toward the hydrogen fuel cell buses and fuelling facility, with the federal government providing another $45 million.
Hydrogen fuel cells use a membrane to capture electrons that are then used to power the buses' electric motors, steering, lights, heating and other onboard systems.
The Resort Municipality of Whistler helped to fund the construction of a new bus depot at Nesters as well as the hydrogen gas refueling station at a cost of $23 million.
Manuel Achadinha, the CEO of B.C. Transit, said it was a close call.
"It's just amazing what was accomplished in a short period of time," he said, acknowledging that the facility was completed under budget with weeks to spare, despite some projections that it couldn't be completed in time for the Games.
"We built a brand new facility for a community that really was in need of a brand new facility."
The Whistler project happened at a time when transit services are expanding around the province with an additional 950 buses on the roads this year in communities across B.C.
"We're really excited for Whistler and to be able to showcase the largest zero emissions bus fleet in the world at the 2010 Games, and after that as well."
The hydrogen bus fleet is a pilot project for the province that will run through 2014, during which time B.C. Transit and the province of B.C. will evaluate the technology for use in other communities.
They are also taking concerns about the technology seriously. According to a spokesperson from Air Liquide - the company contracted to provide hydrogen to the pilot project - that includes addressing the way hydrogen is sourced. Right now the hydrogen is being trucked across Canada from a facility in Quebec but Air Liquide is working with a chemical company in North Vancouver that would recover waste hydrogen from its industrial processes that could be used in Whistler.
Mayor Ken Melamed stressed to the community that the new facility had an estimated life of 40 years, given the projected growth of transit in the community.
"Whistler will welcome the world in a few weeks now, and this is one of the stories we're going to share," he said. "It shows the world our commitment to sustainability and community sustainability planning and Canada's commitment to alternative fuels."
The Resort Municipality of Whistler, which operates the Whistler and Valley Express bus service through a private contractor, will be running the hydrogen fleet for the next fours. It creates a few challenges, such as training mechanics to repair buses that use completely different drive trains than diesel buses, but will also save an estimated 36,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere over the 20 year lifespan of the vehicles - and probably more if fuel can be sourced locally as a byproduct of an existing process.
John Tak, the president and CEO of the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association, said the project made sense for Whistler given that B.C. is recognized as a pioneer and leader in the technology. His job is to market use of the technology, although he says it will take some time for hydrogen to enter the public domain.
"We're in the early days when it comes to projects, like backup electrical systems using stored hydrogen and things like forklifts," he said. "They're not commercial for the most part so people won't see the technology right away."
That said, he acknowledged that some vehicle manufacturers are developing fuel cell vehicles for fleet use, as well as extended range plug-in vehicles that could be available to the public in a few years.
That's despite the lack of federal support for pilot projects in Canada, he said, compared to what is being developed for solar and wind power, as well as biofuels.
"Compared to other clean power industries we're doing everything on our own," he said.