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Whatever happened to the hydrogen highway?

Only a handful of fuel cell cars still on road in B.C.
hydrogen hype Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was a supporter of the Hydrogen Highway during his tenure in office. PHOTO SUBMITTED

Back before the Olympics, there was a dream of building a "hydrogen highway" stretching all the way from Los Angeles to Whistler, presumably so that then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger could drive his hydrogen Hummer from California to the Games. Visions of an eco-friendly future danced in our heads: a 2,000 kilometre stretch of road where the cars would spew only water from their tailpipes.

This dream didn't come true. But no one ever actually promised that it would — it was a dream invented by the public's imagination. "We never put that image out there: I think it took off because people like to think about this long straight line," says Javis Lui, senior manager for communications with the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association, an industry group based in Vancouver.

What the hydrogen highway actually meant to the people who were building it was a couple of clusters of hydrogen filling stations, which could service a handful of leased cars (since hydrogen fuel cell cars aren't available from dealerships yet) and specialty services like Whistler's fleet of hydrogen buses. The idea was to promote a more environmentally-friendly form of transport: instead of burning fossil fuel, cars are driven by a "fuel cell" that takes hydrogen and combines it with oxygen from the air to make electricity and water. The result is not only a cleaner ride but a quieter one: fuel cells don't have moving parts.

In Canada, the official pilot project ran from 2005 to March 2011. Five hydrogen fuelling stations were built: the one in Whistler, one at the University of British Columbia (where there is a fuel cell research facility), one in Burnaby, one in North Vancouver, and one in Victoria. The latter two — Victoria and North Van — were later picked up and moved to Surrey. But aside from Whistler they must be some of the least busy fuelling stations in the world. During the pilot project there were only about five hydrogen fuel cell Ford Focus cars trawling around the Vancouver area, leased out to companies like BC Hydro, plus four hydrogen-powered pickup trucks and five tourist shuttle buses. Today Lui is only aware of three leased Ford fuel cell cars still pounding the pavement in Surrey. The most successful ongoing project has been the fleet of 20 hydrogen buses in Whistler — the largest hydrogen bus fleet in the world. There are no official plans to build any more fuelling stations.

In California, the plan announced in 2004 was to build 150 to 200 hydrogen stations, spaced every (32 kilometres), along all the main Californian highways by 2010. By 2011, they had just 25-30 stations built, mostly in and around LA.

So why did the hydrogen dream fade? First, the technology is challenging. The earliest fuel cell cars didn't work in the cold, and couldn't cram in enough hydrogen to go very far. Those problems have been mostly ironed out. The Whistler buses had a few issues, but not usually with the fuel cells themselves: the efficient engines didn't produce enough waste heat to warm passengers, for example, so they had to add extra heaters. But the cells are still expensive.

Then there's the question of where the hydrogen comes from. You can get hydrogen from water, using clean electricity from hydropower, wind or solar. Or you can just gather the hydrogen produced as a waste by-product by other industries, like the companies that make pulp and paper bleaching chemicals. The North Vancouver-based Hydrogen Technology & Energy Corporation collects, cleans and compresses the waste hydrogen from two such chemical companies, and is now expanding their operation; BC Transit is working to build a hydrogen liquefaction plant in North Vancouver. But a lot of hydrogen on the market now is produced by reforming natural gas — not a renewable resource. Whistler's current hydrogen is actually trucked in from Quebec. Paul Francescutti, Senior Project Engineer for BC Transit, says that still reduces the carbon footprint of the buses by 62 per cent over regular diesel. But it's clearly not as carbon-free as it could be. "It's not perfect," says Lui. "We're not saying we're there yet."

These issues have made many people — including the U.S. Department of Energy — keener on electric cars than hydrogen ones. But people like Lui are still optimistic about the future of hydrogen. In 2009, nine major car manufacturers signed a joint statement in Germany saying they aim to have fuel-cell cars in dealerships by 2015 (probably for about $50,000 each). That has pushed Germany to commit to building hydrogen fuelling stations — as many as 1,000 by 2020. And even though the Canadian "hydrogen highway" pilot project officially ended in 2011, B.C. continues to be a centre for fuel cell activity. Mercedes, for example, is building a fuel cell plant in Burnaby. "It's really rare for auto manufacturers to look at Canada for high tech car assembly — it's usually Japan, Germany or the U.S. Now they're looking at little old Burnaby B.C.," says Lui.

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