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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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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.