Whistler's hydrogen bus fleet recently passed the one million-kilometre mark after almost a year-and-a-half in operation, and while it was a bumpy start with stalled buses it's now a rarity to see one stuck on the side of the highway.
So how is the fleet of buses performing so far? The answer, according to BC Transit President and CEO Manuel Achadinha, is "better."
"Right now the reliability is up significantly, and that's a big positive," he said. "There were two phases of commissioning. We needed a hot, dry summer, which we had last year and we had significant improvements with the software modifications so by September-October we had outstanding reliability, which was as good as we saw with our hydrogen buses.
"When winter hit we had a bit of a dip (in reliability) which we expected, and as winter progressed and we made more software modifications we've seen the reliability come up again."
The five-year, $89 million pilot project - a joint effort between BC Transit, the provincial and federal governments and the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association - started in late 2009 and by the 2010 Games there were 20 buses serving Whistler, making it the largest hydrogen bus fleet in the world. Those buses will remain here for the duration of the pilot project, which concludes in 2014.
Whistler was chosen for the pilot for various reasons. Certainly the Olympics played a part by ensuring maximum visibility for the buses, giving the partners an opportunity to show off their technologies and commitment to the environment. The Resort Municipality of Whistler is also aggressively pursuing a goal of becoming environmentally sustainable and has signed on to the B.C. Climate Action Charter to become carbon neutral by 2012.
Most importantly, Whistler is an ideal testing ground for vehicles - high ridership, long shifts (up to 21 hours), rolling hills and every type of weather and road condition imaginable. If the buses work here, Achadinha noted in 2010, they can work almost anywhere.
The buses generate electricity using hydrogen fuel cell technology, producing almost no emissions other than some steam. All of the carbon emissions related to the project are related Air Liquide, a partner in the project, ships hydrogen by truck from Quebec. However, on May 16 the province gave the go-ahead to build a hydrogen plant in North Vancouver, which will recover waste hydrogen from another industrial process. Air Liquide is a partner in the plant, which will take up to 18 months to develop.
Even with the emissions produced by shipping the hydrogen, the Whistler buses have reduced emissions significantly. Based on a million kilometres travelled, the hydrogen buses would have saved 1,061 tonnes of emissions compared to diesel buses and 99,010 kilograms compared to hybrid buses in the BC Transit fleet.