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Whistler buses: Out with the new, in with the old

When the B.C. government decided to shut down Whistler's fleet of hydrogen fuel cell buses, it gave up on a bold experiment and made the world a little dirtier.

The 20 buses that will be taken out of service next March, four years after being unveiled for the Winter Olympics, were reducing greenhouse gas emissions by almost 2,000 tonnes a year.

But the government has decided the fleet of hydrogen buses is just too costly. So BC Transit is replacing them with diesel buses, which will be an estimated $2.5-million cheaper to run over the course of a year.

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It's out with the new, in with the old as B.C. gives up on the $89-million hydrogen bus program, which was funded jointly by the province, Ottawa and Whistler.

The trial was supposed to last only four years – but there were high hopes that the quiet, pollution-free buses in Whistler were going to prove themselves, and lead to something much bigger.

B.C. officials knew going in, however, that the program wasn't likely to be economically sustainable.

In 2008 the Hydrogen Bus Alliance, an international group of transit agencies promoting a shift to zero-emission public transport, produced a confidential report that took a hard look at the high cost of hydrogen buses.

British Columbia, then preparing plans to roll out the Whistler fleet, was one of 10 organizations that would have been in the loop on that analysis.

The report warns that, even with technology improving and costs declining, a fuel cell bus by 2015 would likely still be more than twice as expensive to own and operate, as a diesel bus.

"The life-cycle analysis shows that … [fuel cell] technology is a long way from achieving a commercial breakthrough," warned the report, which was secret at the time, but which has since been released by the Hydrogen Bus Alliance.

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The report makes it clear that if hydrogen buses are to become widely used, the cost will have to be driven down to a point competitive with diesel.

"Alliance cities will be highly sensitive to the ability of industry to provide real and transparent price reductions in the period to 2015," states the document.

The group hoped costs were going to fall significantly, but when BC Transit pulled the plug on the Whistler fleet, the buses reportedly were costing three times more to run than the diesel equivalents.

So between 2008 and 2013 those promoting hydrogen buses weren't able to make the technology cost competitive.

On the environmental front, hydrogen fuel cell buses still hold great promise. But where the technology is being used, it's heavily subsidized.

Listing Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, London and B.C. among the early adopters, the Hydrogen Bus Alliance notes: "All these cities and regions are characterised by high level political support for hydrogen bus deployment programs … [and] all intend to move towards procuring hydrogen buses on a continuous basis, as hydrogen buses move towards commercial viability in the 2010-2015 timescale."

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Of course, as we now know, the Whistler fleet didn't move far enough down the road to commercial viability. Part of the problem was that BC Transit had to import the hydrogen from a facility in Quebec. But even if the fuel had been available locally, the cleaner, greener buses would still not have been as cheap as the dirtier alternative.

The collapse of the Whistler program does not mean hydrogen buses are dead. Around the world governments continue to support the technology. There are hydrogen buses operating in the U.S., Europe, China, Japan and Australia.

And Ballard Power Systems Inc., the Vancouver company that made the fuel cells for the Whistler fleet, recently signed a non-binding agreement with Van Hool NV, Europe's fourth largest bus manufacturer. So there's still interest in zero-emission fuel cell buses in the world. Just not in B.C., where the government appears to have lost faith with the costly technology of the future.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Mark Hume is a National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver, writing news and feature stories on a daily basis about his home province of British Columbia. His weekly column, which often challenges the orthodoxy on environmental issues, appears every Monday. More

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