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Hydrogen buses pass 1.5-million mile mark

Five-year pilot project runs through 2014

Whistler's 20-bus hydrogen fuel cell fleet is about halfway through its five-year pilot period, and in September the buses will pass a new milestone — 1.5 million road miles (over 2.5 million kilometres) on the road.

For Vancouver's Ballard Fuel Systems, which is the partner in the pilot that contributed the hydrogen fuel cells that convert hydrogen gas to electricity, it's a big moment.

"It has been very important for Ballard to be involved in the world's largest fuel cell bus fleet, particularly since it's right in our own backyard," said Guy McAree, marketing director for Ballard. "The Whistler fleet is a wonderful reference site for potential new bus customers in various parts of the world. It has helped us secure new bus deployments in Palm Springs, London, Amsterdam, Cologne, Oslo and Delhi — and we hope to announce additional new sites in the coming months."

Many of the other adopters of hydrogen buses have also met with BC Transit to discuss their experiences in the pilot program, coming to Whistler to ride the buses and review the infrastructure.

While Whistler helps attract interest as a destination resort, the terrain and climate also had an impact on the decision to host the pilot here — if a bus can handle Whistler's hills and snow, it can handle almost anything.

"Whistler is as challenging an environment as you can find in the public transit world," acknowledged McAree. "The temperature range is wide, the topology is extreme and the ridership in the municipality is above average. The fact that the fleet is meeting performance requirements under these circumstances is a testament to the robustness of these vehicles."

Ballard's day-to-day involvement with the fleet is minimal, warranting the fuel cell modules that power the buses. However, they have had a few challenges — notably the bankruptcy of the company that provides parts and service to the drive trains of the buses. The partners found a way around that issue, and McAree said the partnership as otherwise been "outstanding" in maintaining the fleet.

The buses have not been perfect. During the first year there were a number of issues with buses losing power, most of which were the result of driver or software error. For example, drivers of diesel buses were used to pulling away while they were closing the rear doors of the vehicle, while in the hydrogen buses that would cause an instant shutdown via the onboard safety system.

Those issues are dealt with as they come up, and while you can still see the odd stalled bus McAree said the partners are satisfied with the reliability of the buses through the pilot.

"It is ironic that Ballard's fuel cell module, which was originally considered a high-risk system element, has exceeded our reliability expectations at approximately 99 per cent through the course of the program to date," he said. "The fleet did suffer some teething pains with some of the other system elements early in the program, which is to be expected with any new technology deployment. However, the engineering and service teams at BC Transit, Whistler Transit, Ballard and New Flyer have worked to improve the overall fleet reliability significantly."

The fleet was officially launched in January 2010 in order to be in service through the 2010 Winter Games, and the pilot project will conclude around March in 2014. The $89.5 million pilot is a joint effort between B.C. Transit, provincial and federal governments and the private sector through the Canadian Hydrogen Fuel Cell Association. The Resort Municipality of Whistler is also a partner, although the funding agreement was designed to ensure that any additional costs of running the buses, above what would be normal for a diesel fuel fleet, would be covered by the province. However, Whistler was on the hook for almost half the cost of a $24 million bus depot at Nesters with a hydrogen refuelling station, and higher operating costs that the municipality is currently working to offset by renting space for commercial bus and truck companies.

The hydrogen buses have also been criticized for trucking in hydrogen fuel from Quebec, over 5,000 kilometres away, negating some of the carbon reductions achieved by the zero carbon hydrogen fleet. McAree pointed out that total carbon emissions were still reduced by 60 per cent, and will be reduced even more when a company called Hydrogen Technology Energy Corp completes its work at the ERCO sodium chlorate plant in North Vancouver. That project has been delayed to 2013.

Air Liquide, which is currently manufacturing hydrogen in Quebec, is also working to develop hydrogen resources in B.C., according to McAree.

McAree said the production costs of hydrogen are higher than anticipated, but added that improvements to efficiency of their fuel cells could offset those costs.

As for the future of the hydrogen bus fleet, that has yet to be determined. BC Transit has said that the key decider will be the economics of the fleet and whether the costs are on par, or lower to, conventional diesel fleets.

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