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the road ahead

A hydrogen fuel-cell bus drives through Whistler, B.C. in 2010.BC Hydro/Handout

When the world came to Whistler in 2010, it got a glimpse of a hydrogen-powered future.

In time for the Olympics, the resort town got a fleet of 20 hydrogen fuel-cell buses.

Four years after the games, the zero-emissions fleet was sold and replaced with natural-gas-powered buses.

Critics called it a $94-million boondoggle.

But Whistler’s pilot paved the way for more than 3,000 hydrogen buses on roads worldwide today, even though we don’t have any in Canada yet, a hydrogen industry expert said.

“It was intended to be a first-in-the-world demonstration, not a commercial deployment,” said Mark Kirby, president and CEO of the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association. “It’s unfortunate that, in Canada, the story got changed to ‘this was a dismal failure.’”

Here’s what happened in Whistler – and why Kirby thinks it doesn’t mean the end for hydrogen buses in Canada.

The pilot

Starting in 2009, BC Transit launched a five-year demonstration to see whether hydrogen buses could handle daily service year-round.

To build the buses, Ottawa contributed $45-million, and the British Columbia government contributed $44.5-million.

That worked out to about $2.1-million for each bus. At the time, critics complained that the buses, which produced no CO2 emissions, cost nearly four times the price of a $600,000 diesel bus.

The buses ran from 2010 to 2014. They were used up to 22 hours a day for more than four million kilometres of daily service – in temperatures as low as -20 C, according to a report on the project.

“They took all-new buses, converted them to fuel cells, and they ran there for three years, in full service, up and down the hills of Whistler,” Kirby said. “They did that reliably, and they were extremely well-received by operators and the public.”

By running hydrogen buses instead of diesel buses for four years, BC Transit prevented more than 5,835 tonnes of CO2 from being pumped into the atmosphere, the report said.

But when the pilot ended in 2014, BC Transit decided to sell the buses because it would have cost $20-million more to refit them and keep them on the road, Kirby said.

“They looked at the economics – there was no price on carbon and no zero-emissions vehicle (ZEV) mandate, so it was cheaper to end it,” Kirby said. “That was fine. The project had done what it needed to do; they learned what they needed to learn.”

Plus, the hydrogen to power the buses was expensive since it had to be trucked in from Quebec. That’s because there wasn’t enough available locally.

That trip cut the project’s greenhouse-gas emissions savings to 62 per cent from 100 per cent, the David Suzuki Foundation said at the time.

While there had been a plan to build a liquid hydrogen plant in B.C., it was shelved when the bus pilot ended, Kirby said.

“That plan is being revived, and it will go forward in the next little while,” Kirby said. “[Otherwise], we’re in a poor supply position in Western Canada for liquid hydrogen.”

Is now finally the time?

Eleven years after that first custom-made bus ran in Whistler, there are a number of companies, including Toyota, Hyundai and Daimler, selling hydrogen buses, Kirby said.

“They learned a huge amount in those trials,” Kirby said. “Ballard continued developing fuel cells, and there were trials in California, Europe and Asia – now there are thousands of buses on the road.”

But while Canada has a few battery-electric buses, with more expected, we don’t have any hydrogen buses – yet.

“It’s a shame because we have the best [hydrogen] fuel-cell manufacturers,” Kirby said.

Kirby thinks hydrogen buses, which can be refilled in a few minutes, have advantages over cheaper battery-electric buses.

“Batteries work extremely well in some areas but have limitations in their ability to handle cold weather, hills and routes with long range,” Kirby said. “They also require complex charging systems – if you’re trying to recharge 100 buses or more, it becomes really challenging.”

There is another option – hybrid buses that work on both battery power and hydrogen.

While there are hydrogen-bus trials set to run in Mississauga, Winnipeg and Edmonton, concerns about fuel costs and the purchase cost of the buses are keeping other cities from considering it, Kirby said.

Canada’s hoping to become a major producer of green hydrogen over the next three decades, but that likely won’t happen until there’s a market for it. “It’s a chicken and egg problem,” Kirby said.

Meanwhile, hydrogen buses are getting cheaper, and prices will get even lower if governments can buy many at the same time, Kirby said.

“In the U.S., fuel-cell buses are US$1.2-million each and are on their way down to $1-million – that’s because they’re still producing a small volume,” Kirby said. “In the EU, they’re down to US$850,000 per bus, which is on par with battery-electric buses, because they’re producing a bigger volume.”

In Canada, Ottawa needs to offer low-cost financing to help cities buy “not just one or two hydrogen fuel cell buses, but 100,” Kirby said.

“Infrastructure Canada wants to get 5,000 electric buses on the road by 2025,” Kirby said. “We’d like 1,000 of those to be hydrogen.”