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The dream bus stops here

Fuel cell vehicles can deliver more than a nice ride — if we don’t ditch them



Around the world, people are getting cranked up riding - and it's not on snowboards. Traditionally, Canada has owned the podium when it comes to hydrogen fuel cells, which are delivering exciting new transportation options to riders and drivers worldwide.

For some, Whistler's zero-emission fuel cell bus fleet represents the start of a dream come true and a critical first step towards a renewable energy future.

But just as more of the world is getting excited and joining the fuel cell race, it looks like our own federal government - and a lot of Joe Averages - are jumping off the lead car.


Scenario One:

It's the first few days in October last year. Cool here in Sea to Sky country. Brisk.

Globally, massive UN send-lists are pumping out invitations for side events and press conferences at the COP 15 talks in Copenhagen on climate change, which some scientists called the most important event in the history of humanity.

Meanwhile, a parallel universe is unfolding in Vancouver as the first B.C. Transit hydrogen fuel cell bus bound for Whistler rolls out.

For most, it's a real-time look at the largest fleet of fuel cell vehicles in the world in one location. And they're powered by technology that Canada, especially B.C., is world-renowned for being the leader in - fuel cells, in this case ones built by Ballard right in our own back yard.

By the end of November, while Bus No. 1 rolls up Highway 99 to pick up its first passengers, security is setting up in Copenhagen's streets, in part to control anticipated protests by disillusioned souls.

Fast forward to last week: the full fleet of 20 fuel cell buses goes live at Whistler, tipping urban mass transit on its ear by transporting passengers with a net 62 per cent fewer greenhouse gas emissions - 1,800 fewer tonnes of carbon dioxide - than any regular diesel bus could hope to. (Actually, the buses have no emissions except water - I've tasted it. But, fairly or not, some people are factoring in the emissions caused by trucking some of the hydrogen fuel from Quebec.)

Worldwide, disappointment over the Copenhagen talks still reverberates.


Scenario Two:

It's early June last year. The sky across Sea to Sky country to the U.S. border is brown and thick with smoke from wildfires burning out of control near Lillooet due to record low moisture levels. (NASA would later report that 2009 was the second warmest year on record.)

In the cool, urbane interior of the new Vancouver Convention Centre, some 1,000 scientists, researchers and industry leaders from around the world are gathered for the 2009 Hydrogen + Fuel Cells Conference.

There's a frisson in the air at this, the largest such event in Canada and one of the premier events for the hydrogen and fuel cell sector in the world. And, no, it's not just a love-in of like-minded people. Some, including journalists, are cynical, having never gotten over the big-promise fuel cell bubbles of the 1990s that burst.

Still, the vast majority of conference goers are excited about major successes for hydrogen fuel cells globally. They're generating backup power for cell phone towers in India, replacing diesel generators and ending the incumbent noise and fumes. Likewise, they're proving themselves in Denmark (in fact, Ballard just announced it's buying controlling interest in Dantherm Power for similar applications). And they're powering everything from computers to forklifts and airport transporters.

But what's got a lot of people cranked at this conference is the imminent commercialization of vehicles - cars, vans and buses that are affordable, attractive, practical and fun to drive.

The magic number is 15. Experts predict that in 10-15 years, up to 15 per cent of the auto market will be driven by fuel cells. And by 2015 customer-ready fuel cell cars will be available from companies like Daimler and Toyota.

In fact, as we sit in the darkened auditorium listening to these experts, a fleet of 12 shining fuel cell cars and vans from Daimler, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, VW, Ford, Hyundai and even GM are heading toward the plaza outside. They've just driven 2,700 km from Los Angeles using nothing but hydrogen.

When they roll in, hundreds of bystanders approve. Some are grinning from ear to ear; some murmur ooh's and ahh's. A group of school kids seems especially excited. When I ask one little guy why he likes them, he says confidently, "These are the cars for us!"

The vehicles seem to float past. All you hear is the sound of tires on pavement. And no one's nose is scrunched up from stinky exhaust.

At the same time, in dozens of locations around the world - Germany, Iceland, China, Britain, Sweden, Australia - hundreds of fuel cell cars and buses are being driven, tested, scrutinized and documented in demonstration projects, and have been for years.

Meanwhile, inside the convention centre, newspapers left lying on chairs sport headlines like "GM bankrupt." U.S. and Canadian governments eventually extend GM a US$40-billion bailout; Chrysler will get US$70 billion. By comparison, a California study puts the cost of an initial hydrogen fueling infrastructure at about US$180 million.

The irony is not lost on conference goers. Suddenly, the term "fossil fuels" takes on new meaning, with the emphasis on "fossil."


• • •


Richard Chahine's enthusiasm for Whistler's zero-emission fuel cell buses is obvious, even on the phone 5,000 km from his office in Trois-Rivières, Quebec, close to where some of the hydrogen for Whistler's fuelling station has been sourced.

Chahine is the scientific director of NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada) Strategic Network H2CAN and holds an NSERC Industrial Research Chair at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières . He's also executive director for the Hydrogen Research Institute there, part of a cluster of hydrogen initiatives that sprang from a 1980s European/Hydro Quebec joint project to provide hydrogen as a clean energy fuel.

"This is so exciting!" he says of Whistler's bus fleet. "It would be like a dream come true, seeing a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle in a commercial application like that.

"The people (at Whistler) should be proud of the fact they are the first place in the world where they are using hydrogen commercially for vehicles. I wish it was in Trois-Rivières!"

When I tell him that, au contraire , a fair amount of whingeing about the bus project is floating around locally, including it being named as one of the least sustainable projects in Pique 's "Best of 2009" issue, he's incredulous.

"Other cities, other municipalities around the world are looking at the Whistler experience," Chahine says. "Everybody is going to learn from that  - how well the fuel cell behaves in a normal bus operation. That's the main point of the whole thing.

"In terms of public transportation, this puts Whistler on the map globally... It really is advancing the whole world through this technology." He equates it to the first cell phone or the first computer that left the lab and was sold to an actual customer.

At least some people at Whistler, besides the mayor and a few official spokespeople, do seem excited. The B.C. Transit bus drivers say they get a lot of positive comments from riders and "thumbs ups" from people as they drive by. This reaction is more in keeping with public polls done on passengers riding demonstration fuel cell buses in Europe, where response is "very, very positive."

As for charges that the bus program is too expensive at $89 million, which covers the 20 buses, the world's largest capacity hydrogen fueling station and operating costs for the next five years, Chahine points out this is par for the course for early commercialization. Consider that the first personal home computer, which filled an entire room, cost about US$10,000 (in 1970s dollars) and was about as powerful as ones available today for hundreds of dollars.

"If we are going to take that first thing and say it's too expensive and apply it right across the board, we would have nothing today," says Chahine.

Market research by Daimler, which has partnered with Ford and Ballard in a new Burnaby-based company called AFCC (Automotive Fuel Cell Cooperation) to develop the automotive side of fuel cells, also shows strong public momentum for these zero-emission vehicles. But there's a caveat.

"We always have this extremely positive feedback from people riding on the (Daimler fuel cell) buses in the European program or test driving one of our new fuel cell B-Classes - a very, very high rate of acceptance and excitement about this," says Andreas Truckenbrodt, CEO at AFCC.

"On the one hand, it's exciting for many people riding in such a vehicle to know you have no emissions, that it's very efficient and you're doing something good for the environment, and this is where the future is going... Then when they're going to sign the purchase contract, if the vehicle costs more, rationale kicks in and this readiness disappears."

Climate change or not, surveys show we consumers are willing to spend extra money on leather seats, a good sound system and fancy alloy rims but not on zero emissions or fuel economy.

In fact, the No. 1 consideration for car buyers is design. This shouldn't be a problem for fuel cell vehicles, at least not for the ones that drove from Los Angeles for last June's rally. Every vehicle, even the delivery vans by Volkswagen, had huge eye-appeal.

And the technology is there, too. The Canadian industry is already selling fuel cells commercially for stationary power uses, forklifts and airport transporters. In terms of vehicles, the people at AFCC - and Toyota - are confident they have all the technical pieces of the puzzle in place for commercial-ready vehicles by 2015 ( See: Excitement at Toyota ).

The 100-plus fuel cell demonstration vehicles Daimler has on the road right now - buses and the F-CELL Mercedes B-Class cars using the same Ballard fuel cell as the Whistler buses - all show good performance, good durability, good freeze-start capability, says Truckenbrodt. In short, all the qualities drivers want and expect today from a vehicle.

Even I can attest to that. Conference goers last June, including Premier Gordon Campbell, who's been a big supporter of fuel cells, were able to drive or ride in the rally cars. By all accounts, including mine, they are thrilling, especially because nothing nasty is coming from the tailpipe.

Now, at least two pieces of the fuel cell puzzle remain. For one, companies like Daimler and Toyota are focused on getting costs in line and production numbers comparable to those of regular gasoline/diesel vehicles. It's like the last push of a cross-country ski racer to the finish line - a fragile time when previous efforts culminate and you need to muster all your resources for that one last sprint.

The other piece of the puzzle is fueling infrastructure. One reason some people are crying foul over the Whistler fuel cell buses is the fact that not enough local hydrogen was available for fuelling. Locally, this will be ameliorated in part due to a recent grant from Sustainable Development Technology Canada for a new hydrogen liquefaction plant, adding to one operated by Sacré-Davey in North Vancouver.

"What we know can be done is not magic," says Truckenbrodt. "It certainly requires substantial investment to set up hydrogen infrastructure comparable to what we have today in gasoline. But, number one, a similar investment would be needed if electric vehicles were rolled out in large numbers, and number two, the numbers are not earth-shattering."

Case in point, last September, the German government signed an MoU with high-profile industrial partners, including Daimler, Linde and Shell, for a hydrogen fuel supply network. The plan is to have 1,000 hydrogen stations in place by that magic year, 2015. And a study by the California Fuel Cell Partnership indicates that an initial hydrogen fuel network of 46 stations would cost approximately US$180 million.

"The nice thing about hydrogen is you don't have to produce it very far away and import it somehow," says Chahine. "Most of the time there are local energy resources on site."

You can obtain hydrogen from a number of sources - fossil fuels like natural gas, or alternatives like biomass, electrolysis or landfill gas. There's also "wind hydrogen," where wind power - a technology in which Canada was also once a leader - generates electricity to split hydrogen atoms from oxygen atoms in water. Honda is even developing home re-fueling stations where solar panels on houses use electrolysis to make hydrogen.

Right now Canada annually generates more than 200,000 tonnes of hydrogen by-product. Most of it is flared to the atmosphere. Capture half of that and you have enough for 500,000 vehicles, says Chahine.

The other nice thing about hydrogen fuelling infrastructure is that you can start small and add to it. Right now in the Lower Mainland and Whistler there are five fuelling stations. Chahine estimates that probably three to six more in the area would be more than adequate.

Besides Germany, other countries on the brink of fuel cell commercialization and pushing ahead with their hydrogen economies - including Japan, Denmark and the U.S. - are seeing support from their federal governments to help solve these last pieces of the puzzle. They're providing clear policies with R&D funding and tax incentives.

The amazing thing is that similar support is not happening here in Canada, the cradle of fuel cell technology and, up to now, the globally-recognized leader.

The situation has overtones of the Avro Arrow or Who Killed the Electric Car? tragedies hanging over it or, perhaps more accurately, the fact that Canada was once the leader in wind power, a position now enjoyed by Denmark.

From 2003-08, the federal government earmarked $215 million exclusively for supporting the hydrogen industry through the Hydrogen Economy Program. In March 2008, the program was stopped and not renewed. During the same five years, industry invested more than $1 billion.

Not only are government funds important for technical development, especially during the final push before commercialization, they also send clear signals to investors.

"Policy support tells investors this technology is important to the government. That means investment risks decrease because companies in that sector have access to supplemental sources of cash and proper regulatory support," says John Tak, president and CEO of the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association.

"Right now in the bio-tech industry, for every dollar the private sector invests there is more than a dollar of public funding matching it. Our ratio is closer to 17 cents of public funding for every private sector dollar we invest."

Technology-specific policy supports works. The federal government's $1-billion Clean Energy Fund directs $650 million to carbon capture and storage. Another federal program allocates $1.4 billion to the ethanol industry. Result: new capital is flowing strongly into those sectors.

Granted, there have been recent glimmers of hope for Canada's hydrogen industry. For instance, last week Sustainable Development Technology Canada announced $20 million for three hydrogen and fuel cell projects.

"This government believes in clean energy. But what's missing is a clear hydrogen and fuel cell policy," says Tak.

Experts inside and outside the country are baffled by the change in direction. One prominent U.S. industry source, who didn't want to be named, described the drying up of Canadian funding and lack of supportive policies - such as a U.S. incentive that refunds US$3,500 to consumers for every kilowatt of power produced by fuel cell generators they buy - as "odd and sad."

"We have a surprising amount of bi-partisan political support from very conservative to very liberal for fuel cell technology. People across the political spectrum support it for all different reasons - they see its potential for environmental and energy security, its strategic value, and how it can boost the economy..." he says.

"Canada has been seen as the native home of fuel cells, at least transportation fuel cells, because of Ballard's prominence, so it does seem both odd and discouraging that the government has essentially withdrawn its support for the industry."

People like Richard Chahine are especially concerned that the wrong signals and lack of policy will cause the industry to weaken and/or move elsewhere, and with it the knowledge base.

"We (in Canada) are not only strong in fuel cells, we are strong in the hydrogen-connected technologies and we do have a huge share of the global market," he says. "But now that we are looking at commercialization and business is picking up, we are letting it go."

He cites the $3,500 purchase incentive in the U.S. as an example. If companies sell more fuel cells there, rather than in Canada, eventually they will move there. A similar thing happened with the Canadian companies that developed forklifts powered by fuel cells. Just as they commercialized, they were bought by U.S. firms, so the companies along with their incumbent "brain power" moved there.

"When things pick up, we lose it. It's a history in Canada," he says.

Hopefully, some Canadians would like to change that history when it comes to fuel cells.




Excitement at Toyota

Working in a supportive framework


Even if you're a betting soul, you'll have a hard time choosing whether Toyota or Daimler will be first past the finish line with an affordable fuel cell car by 2015.

While it holds the technology developed by Ballard "as a pioneer" in high regard and envies Canadian expertise in this sector, Toyota is developing its own fuel cell technology for its FCHV-adv vehicles slated to be in showrooms within five years.

"It's exciting not just because of environmental and sustainability reasons, there's also a new excitement in driving a completely different technology," says Katsuhiko Hirose, Toyota's project general manager, who's in charge of strategy and technical development for fuel cell vehicles. He also helped develop the Prius, the world's top-selling hybrid.

"The control and response of the motor is much faster than the internal combustion engine - it's like a rider united with a horse." Internal combustion engines need compression and ignition before the power is delivered, which takes 100 milliseconds. The motor in a fuel cell power train delivers torque within a millisecond, or 100 times faster.

Toyota's backing of sustainable vehicles today stems from the philosophy of its founder, Sakichi Toyoda, from nearly 80 years ago. The company's goal: to contribute to society through technology.

"We need to provide mobility for the future, so if you think about the current environmental and energy issues, we can no longer rely on fossil fuels, especially oil," Hirose says. "High oil prices hurt many societies last year." His personal dream: to see fuel cell and hybrid vehicles capture 100 per cent of the market by 2035.

Japan's fuel cell industry is looking at different sources than Canada's for its hydrogen, namely chemical salt by-product residues from industrial processes which will be developed for fuelling infrastructure, possibly by 2015-20. The sector is also working within a supportive, clearly articulated governmental framework.

"Our government thinks that it's responsible for providing the basic infrastructure, especially reducing restrictive regulations, and for providing funding for the basic technology development, especially the reaction of catalysts we are interested in," says Hirose.

Since 2003, when the Japanese government started supporting its fuel cell sector it has provided US$200-$400 million annually compared to Canada's $30 million in 2008.


Denmark: Very well-organized and very convincing

The first I heard about Canada's vs. Denmark's positions in fuel cell development was from a Danish technician at the 2009 Hydrogen + Fuel Cells Conference. When I mentioned I was from Vancouver, he laughed and said, oh you guys used to be the leaders. Now we're spending as much on fuel cells as Canada, and our population is the size of Vancouver's.

He was partially right: Denmark's support for fuel cells is what Canada's used to be - $30 million annually - but Denmark has about double Metro Vancouver's population. ( See: Time to catch up ). As for his comment that we used to be the leaders, it was a shock to hear, even if inaccurate.

Most pundits agree that Denmark is powering ahead with fuel cell and hydrogen technology. Obviously, my Danish friend thought it's already No. 1, and with its current program it may soon be.

"In Denmark, we've had good experience with the wind industry - it's proven to be quite profitable. We're producing around 25 per cent of the windmills in the world, so we've learned that focusing on energy technological development can pay off," says Aksel Mortensgaard from his home in Copenhagen.

Mortensgaard is the director of the Danish Partnership for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells, the result of a 2005 national strategy led by government that united all key stakeholders - government, research institutes and industry.

The partnership is "very, very well-organized" and "very convincing." Interestingly, the Danish government supports research to about 40 per cent of R&D funding, while Canada has traditionally covered about 17 per cent.

"We have a strong industry here - strong competency, strong advocacy and strong facilities. We also believe this can be a new venture within the windmill industry," he says.

Denmark and Canada, which claimed leadership in wind technology until it lost its position to Denmark, are researching fuel cells to store energy from wind power. Denmark, which is part of a Scandinavian hydrogen highway, also concurs with Germany's solution that renewable, sustainable energy sources will include hydrogen and fuel cell technology.


Time for Canada to catch up


Country               Government support for hydrogen fuel cell programs


USA                  $640 million annually to 2014 + $3,000/kW purchase-incentive tax credit


Germany          $1.1 billion until 2017


Japan                  $380 million in 2008 for R&D + commercialization


South Korea $100 million per year for development + commercialization


India                  $50 million per year for development + commercialization


China                  $60 million per year for development + commercialization


EU                   $800 million over six years


Denmark         $30 million per year

(Population: 5 million)


Canada         2008: $30 million

2009 - 2014: Unknown


If you would like to let our federal government know you want to keep Canada's fuel cell industry No. 1, go to www.chfca.ca and click on "Retain Our Hydrogen + Fuel Cell Leadership."

- Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association



Canadian fuel cell facts

• In a 2008 study by Science-Metrix, the B.C. fuel cell cluster was ranked No. 1 for research output in the world.

• By 2016, global sales for the hydrogen and fuel cell sector are estimated to reach $8.5 billion.

• Vancouver has the largest concentration of hydrogen and fuel cell expertise in the world, providing 2,000 high-value, innovation-based jobs in Canada. (Source: Hydrogen Highway Program)

Fuel cells were invented in 1839. They use catalysts to combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce water, electricity and heat.

- National Research Council