Opinion » Editorial

End of the road for hydrogen buses

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Whistler's $89.5 million hydrogen bus pilot project has finally come to the end of its road.

It's no surprise — the understanding was always that it was just a way of showcasing British Columbia technology, in this case the Ballard fuel cell, to the world as it watched our town, province and country prepare for the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The success of the experiment, and its return on investment will be argued for years to come. Some will claim that it raised awareness of the issues flowing out of vehicle emissions beyond even what environmentalists hoped for.

The government, not surprisingly, continues to tout it as a success.

In a letter to Ballard Power Systems, Minister Todd Stone of transportation and infrastructure called the project an "innovation success story."

"The project has accomplished everything it set out to do," he said.

At some point in the last few years the story of the hydrogen fuel cell buses has graced the pages of many newspapers and magazines, and appeared on television and radio programs locally, nationally and internationally.

Not all the coverage has been good, of course.

According to the David Suzuki Foundation, 28 per cent of Canada's total green house gas emissions come from transportation. Indeed, today we drive double the amount of kilometres we did in 1960 and twice as many people own cars.

Whistler mirrors those statistics with the greatest source of the community's GHG emissions (2011 statistics) coming from passenger vehicles (51 per cent), followed by commercial natural gas use (23 per cent) and residential natural gas use (10 per cent).

Though Whistler has delivered a 13 per cent reduction in GHG emissions since 2007 primarily, as a result of significant infrastructure projects (pipeline conversion, landfill management and increased organics recycling) to meet the resort community's GHG reduction targets, Whistler must cut 3,000 to 4,000 tonnes of GHG emissions each year until 2020.

The end of the hydrogen buses is going to make that an even harder target to reach despite the fact that the fuel needed to run them was shipped across the country from Quebec by truck.

Of course the longer-term hope was always that the hydrogen fuel would be manufactured here, but that hasn't happened, and likely never will. Critics have frequently pointed to the fuel source as a major stumbling block in the development of hydrogen vehicles. If the hydrogen is processed using old standbys like coal-fired plants power or natural gas there is really no savings to the environment whatsoever.

In the case of the Whistler fleet, its hydrogen fuel came from hydropower in Quebec, which was then was shipped across the country in liquid form under a six-year, $20 million contract with Air Liquide.

Even so there were emissions savings. To power a diesel bus generates the equivalent of 2,000 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre. The Whistler buses emitted 800 grams per kilometre — and about 65 per cent of those emissions were from transporting the fuel.

But right from the get-go critics called out the then Liberal government under Gordon Campbell over the fuel-cell bus plan. It was already known, for example, that the technology struggled in cold climates.

According to a Freedom of Information request submitted by the Canadian Autoworkers' Union a midterm evaluation suggested that the average fuel range was below the amount specified in the contract and was worse during the winter months, when water in the fuel cells froze and prevented the buses from starting or running efficiently.

It noted too that hydrogen fuel costs, at an average $2.28/km, were three times the cost of diesel, and maintenance costs were $1 per kilometre, compared with 65 cents/km for diesel buses.

But it was about more than just performance.

You can't help but ask what the nearly $90 million could have achieved for transit if not spent on a pilot project everyone knew was not going to be continued. Each bus cost over $2 million dollars! (The federal government contributed $45 million and the B.C. government provided $44.5 million for the manufacture of 20 hydrogen buses and to cover the capital and operating expenses of BC Transit until 2014. Whistler's $16.8 million, however, was the cost the municipality would have paid for a diesel fuel fleet over the five years).

What if we had spent the money on diesel/gas-electric hybrids instead — emissions would have been cut 40 per cent. That's pretty good. And not only is it likely we would still have them today, we could have had six of these buses for each hydrogen one.

We also have a growing number of charging stations in the corridor, so clearly this is a more realistic long-term solution for B.C. There are no personal hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on the road in Whistler today.

Scientific research is a valuable tool in our arsenal to fight growing emissions and climate change.

What we don't need in our tool belt are boondoggles and hype over an idea whose time is not now. There are plenty of realistic ideas we can embrace and establish now instead.

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