Skip to main content

Ballard Power Systems manufactured the Whistler hydrogen fuel-cell buses.Hand-Out

Whistler's flirtation with the hydrogen highway has come to the end of the road.

The municipality accepted 20 hydrogen fuel cell-powered buses to showcase the technology in the lead-up to the 2010 Olympics, but the program comes to an end in March and the buses are being replaced with diesel.

Engines powered by hydrogen fuel cells produce zero greenhouse-gas emissions; their only by-product is water. Compared to diesel, the fuel-cell buses reduced carbon dioxide emissions by more than 4,400 tonnes over five years.

"They'll all be scrapped so that you can go buy polluting diesel buses and put them into one of the most pristine air-quality regions of North America," said Eric Denhoff, president of the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association.

The fate of the 20 hydrogen buses is still unknown. What is clear is that they cost three times as much to fuel and maintain as diesel buses. And because a project to build a "hydrogen highway" from California to B.C. never materialized, hydrogen fuel had to be shipped from Quebec.

But Mr. Denhoff maintains the buses still reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 65 per cent, even when accounting for the shipment by truck. And there may have been a chance of developing a new hydrogen fuel production facility in North Vancouver.

As for the cost, "everybody understood from the beginning that these weren't cost competitive with diesel buses," said Mr. Denhoff.

Instead, Transport Minister Todd Stone said in a statement that the focus of the pilot program was to evaluate daily fuel-cell bus performance, strengthen the fuel-cell industry in B.C., and showcase the province as a leader in clean energy. Mr. Stone was unavailable for an interview and no one from B.C. Transit returned requests for comment.

"The program's been very successful. It's achieved everything we wanted it to," said Paul Cass, vice-president of operations for Ballard Power Systems, the company that manufactured the Whistler buses.

Ballard Power Systems has just signed a contract for up to $100-million with Volkswagen and soon will be licensing fuel-cell buses in China. Mr. Cass said Ballard hoped the Whistler contract would be renewed for another five years.

But at $2.5-million a year over and above the cost to operate diesel buses, the province and its cash-strapped transit system couldn't afford to keep the fuel-cell buses going.

The buses were also saddled with a reputation for breaking down frequently, especially in cold weather.

"It's a struggle for dollars for every transit system in the province," said Ben Williams, president of Unifor 333, the union that represents bus operators and mechanics in the Greater Victoria Area.

"How do you spend $90-million on this project when the Victoria Regional Transit Commission is struggling as to whether or not to purchase two more buses?"

Mr. Williams believes there are more affordable environmentally friendly options available.

"We continue to throw money at the hydrogen fuel-cell buses that are clearly not sustainable in its current form," said Mr. Williams. "At what point does the taxpayer continue to pay into a program with the hopes that it's going to develop into something beneficial?"

One option is buses that operate on compressed natural gas, a technology that emits 20 to 25 per cent fewer greenhouse gases than diesel.

Cummins Westport is a Vancouver-based joint venture that manufactures natural-gas engines for buses. According to the company's president, Jim Arthurs, today's low price of natural gas is driving municipalities across North America to convert.

BC Transit now appears to be exploring this option. It has recently purchased a new fleet of 50 buses in Nanaimo. Translink, which operates buses in Metro Vancouver, will also soon be adding them to their fleet.

Compressed natural-gas technology was available when the Whistler program was announced in 2009, but then the cost of natural gas in B.C. was higher than it is now.

"The potential was there," said Mr. Arthurs.

Interact with The Globe