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.