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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



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


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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.