BC Transit is ending its experiment with hydrogen-powered buses, and the outcome is not what fuel cell proponents were hoping for. The transit authority quietly moved to sell off its fleet of 20 fuel cell buses earlier this month, ending a five-year pilot project kicked off during the 2010 Olympics in Whistler. The cells were built by Burnaby-based Ballard Power Systems and were reportedly the world’s largest fleet of fuel-cell electric buses at that time. The provincial and federal governments split the bill for the trial fleet, which cost around $89 million. Now, it’s unclear what will happen to the buses, and more generally to hydrogen power in Canada’s transportation sector. BC Transit is “exploring various options” for the Whistler fleet, including conversion back to diesel power. On December 19 Transit will close a bidding process for the buses, a CBC report states. According to Ballard Power, the Whistler fleet cost $1.34 per kilometre to run, roughly double the 65 cents it costs to operate a diesel bus. However, Eric Denhoff who heads the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association points out that the cells kept thousands of tons of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. Unfortunately it didn’t help that hydrogen to fuel the buses had to be trucked in from Quebec, and that a local supply couldn’t be secured. Supplier Air Liquide had expressed interest in building a hydrogen fuel plant in British Columbia (BC), but the province’s lack of interest nipped the project in the bud.
While BC Transit’s move away from hydrogen is a blow to the domestic industry, transit fleets in Europe continue to shift routes to fuel cell buses. In October, work began on a hydrogen refueling station in Aberdeen—the first such station in the United Kingdom. According to the Aberdeen Press and Journal, it’s part of Scotland’s larger effort to “decarbonize” its road transportation sector by 2050. European bus manufacturers announced a plan last month to build between 500 and 1,000 fuel cell buses between 2017 and 2020. And in an effort to provide more sustainable transit fleets in Western Canada, electricity too is actively being explored as a “fuel” source. The Winnipeg Transit authority for example is currently testing four lithium-ion battery-powered buses ahead of a decision on making a larger shift away from diesel.
The Climate Examiner speaks to BC-based Carbon Engineering about the technology, the business and the policies that could make direct air capture, synfuels and carbon sequestration work.