Vancouver Ends Hydrogen Bus Program Amid High Costs



As part of the 2010 Olympic Games in British Columbia, the city of Vancouver added 20 hydrogen fuel cell powered buses to its transportation system. The $90 million worth of hydrogen buses were paid for in part by grants from the Canadian government and were intended to showcase Vancouver as a modern city in tune with a sustainable world. After all, we know the only thing that comes out of the tailpipe of a fuel cell vehicle is water vapor. Things don’t get any greener than that.

But less than five years later, British Columbia Transit has put its hydrogen bus fleet in storage and is offering it for sale to the highest bidder, reports the CBC News. They will replace the buses with new diesel powered vehicles. If they can’t find a buyer, they intend to remove the fuel cells and replace them with old fashioned diesel engines, ending an experiment that had doubters from the get-go. What went wrong?

One thing is that after the Olympic Games were over, local, regional and national governments forgot about their much ballyhooed commitment to clean hydrogen power. They failed to build the infrastructure that was supposed to make Vancouver a model for the rest of the world. Part of that plan was a proposed “hydrogen highway” connecting Vancouver to Seattle, Washington, just a few hours drive away. But construction on most of the hydrogen stations never began and the ones that were completed went out of service soon after the Olympics left town.

The dagger in the heart of the hydrogen experiment was cost. A diesel powered bus costs about $0.62 in fuel and maintainence for every kilometer it travels. BC Transit was spending double that for its hydrogen, about $1.34 per kilometer. That’s because Vancouver has no hydrogen fuel supplier of its own, so the fuek had to be trucked in using diesel powered trucks from…..wait for it…..Quebec, 2350 miles away. Not only did that double operating costs, it also reduced the zero-emissions benefits of having hydrogen buses in the first place.

Quite naturally, supporters of fuel cell vehicles are outraged. Eric Denhoff, President and CEO of the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association, told the CBC that the buses should have kept on the road as a demonstration project, despite their higher operating costs. He says electric trolley buses also cost more than diesels, but the transit authority manages to keep a large fleet of them on the road in order to further other goals, such as reducing pollution.

“Even if there was a bit of additional cost to running these things, you now have to go out and buy 20 new diesel buses to replace them, so I don’t understand how the math on that works,” said Denhoff. “I just think management there doesn’t like new technology.” Unfortunately for Denhoff and other hydrogen supporters, in the real world most decisions like this come down to dollars and cents. Each of these hydrogen buses has been on the road for at least four years and 200,000 kilometers; how much more of a demonstration do you need?

All of this revives the age old conundrum — which comes first, the infrastructure or the bus? In an odd twist, Hyundai began selling the hydrogen powered version of its popular Tucson SUV in the Vancouver market last month. No word on whether lucky Hyundai Tucson FCEV owners will have to drive to Quebec to refuel.

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  • James Rowland

    Any word on how Quebec was making the hydrogen? If it was steam reformation of hydrocarbons – and it usually is – then that’s an impressive length of tailpipe for your CO2 emissions.

    • Steve Hanley

      That’s an excellent question, James and I don’t know the answer. Most “hydrogen heros” prefer to conveniently overlook the environment impact of making fuel grade hydrogen in the first place.

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  • Lance Cars

    Japan is moving fast to hydrogen made from coal purchased from Australia.
    Canada can’t beat Japan? Those Hyundai customers are not going to be happy about the lack of finishing the hydrogen highway. Toyota is going to have same problem soon.

  • James

    There is more. The buses were not operated in Vancouver but in the resort town of Whistler, the site of the Olympic games. They did not perform well in cold weather and did not reach the specified fuel range and their water tanks froze. They are unlikely to have put the miles on the road that are claimed.
    The end of the program has little to do with the lack of infrastructure and more to do with the fuzzy math and logic used in the first place.
    The cheapest form of hydrogen is from natural gas (methane) – a fossil fuel and that is one of a half dozen reasons hydrogen as a transportation fuel is DOA.
    A few Toyota Mirais and Hyundai Tuscons will be kept as museum pieces. The rest will not be able to be given away and this detour to real green transportation will finally be over in about 18 months.

  • Kerry Carter

    This technology just don’t add up. After article upon article from both sides the energy used and the pollution it causes could just be already charging a battery. They will lose so much money selling why not convert to battery electric? Diesel?and why? Cost? Thought it was all about lowering pollution.

    • Gray Lyons

      And when the company goes bankrupt because of high cost and people are put out of workd what then?

  • Fred Robinson

    The biggest mistake was shipping hydrogen across Canada. BC makes most of it’s electricity with hydro power and the electricity is cheap. Using that low cost or free electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen would have made the fuel much less expensive and removed the transportation cost. Whistler had a micro hydro project being built at the base of the mountain that the Olympic Comity stopped because of potential noise. Stupid planning, and ignorant officials killed it. The buses worked great and the fuel cells heated them. Using renewable electricity to create pure hydrogen releases no carbon. When the hydrogen is used for fuel you get the water back. The FC buses do have batteries or capacitors for acceleration that the fuel cell or regenerative braking charge. Wake up folks, it does work.

    • James Rowland

      It does work. Batteries work far better though, as the energy conversions required are both fewer and (much) more efficient than electrolysing water, compressing the hydrogen and reacting it in a fuel cell.

      (Nearly all hydrogen is made by splitting hydrocarbons into hydrogen and CO2, but let’s generously assume we can force the market to adopt electrolysis of water instead.)

      End to end, BEVs waste around 20% of the input energy on its way to the motor. With hydrogen from electrolysis, it’s more like 70% (if you’re lucky.) In other words, for a given output at the wheels, around TEN TIMES more energy is wasted by HFCVs and H2 infrastructure than by BEVs.

      Whatever the cost of a particular electricity source, its output is worth whatever the market says it is. There is an opportunity cost to wasting ten times more of it than necessary; you could’ve used that lost energy for something else.

      Lower efficiency also multiplies the generating capacity required to meet a given demand, slowing down the effective growth of clean energy. I’ll remind you that clean transportation is a time critical problem.

      This isn’t a technology issue that might improve in HFC’s favour; it’s a laws of physics issue dictated by nature itself. Like it or not, these factors are and will continue to be deal breakers.

    • Shadeburst

      Ion drives work too but they are impractical for transportation on earth. The marketplace can be very cruel. Wonderful ideas often die simply because they don’t sell. They might fulfil a customer need but at the wrong price. Investment in projects that cannot compete in the marketplace is not good economics. It is charity.

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  • Usual SusTech

    The UK’s first hydrogen production and bus refuelling station has just opened in Aberdeen – Plans for a North East Hydrogen Highway have also been proposed.

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