To market, to market... on an old belching diesel 

Missing the big blue bus of possibilities


When my husband was a kid in Montreal his dad would take him grocery shopping at the big covered market in Vieux Ville on the St. Lawrence. Eel was a family favourite, and the vendors sold them the best way possible — live.

One Saturday on the way home on the bus with groceries, the live eel managed to wriggle its way out of the bag. It plopped unceremoniously onto the floor of the bus and proceeded to wriggle and writhe its way down aisle amidst the kinds of shrieks you could expect from a busload of Montrealers not used to the impossible sight of a desperate, terrified eel on board.

Buses have carried all kinds of grocery shoppers home over the centuries — the first buses ran in Paris in the 1660s. And with Whistler about to roll out winter service, I'm moaning in my cups that grocery shoppers can't carry their cookies, their taco shells, their lettuce — or live eels — home from Nesters or Olives or The Grocery Store on a hydrogen fuel cell bus.

With the current Harper cabal reeling in any green federal funding faster than you can reel in a live eel — including for hydrogen fuel cell development (to wit, at the National Research Council facility at UBC, the focus on alternative energy, including fuel cells, has morphed into "energy and mining") — Whistler's impossible dream of 20 zero-emission fuel cell buses is now languishing, nay, rusting, somewhere in a BC Transit yard.

Nobody knows their fate. One rumour had it that they were going to Victoria for public transit. One said they were going to China. Or they just might be gutted, the fuel cell stacks sold to the highest bidder.

But we can't only throw Harper under the bus on this one.

Ask your local MLA what's up next time you see him or her. Ask her why the fuel cell buses aren't running in, say, Vancouver, aspiring to be the world's greenest city, where the climate would suit them and there's a steady local supply of hydrogen. When she says they're too expensive to run, tell her it's totally possible. One more cent in fuel tax on every litre of gasoline sold would more than pay the extra cost for their operations. I'll be the first to gladly pay it and can already see hundreds lining up behind me.

Whatever the buses' fate, it's a grim ending (with wisps of the Avro Arrow smoldering in the background) to what should have been a glorious tale.

The hydrogen bus story began with the Olympics — remember them? The most sustainable Winter Games in history? — and the then-provincial government's faith in the B.C.-born technology.

Then stuff happened. After the hydrogen highway from California to Whistler got derailed and Translink (code for the B.C. government) said they were too expensive, the plug was pulled. Too bad too many people don't get the "development" part of research and development of big bold technology. When it comes to the tail end and you've almost reached commercialization, smart people pump funding in, not pull it out.

Now Canada, once the queen of fuel cell development, is the laughing stock of the alternative energy world, with hideous tar sands destroying our profile as a world leader in sustainable technology.

Worse, our scientists who were experts in the field have already fled for greener pastures like Japan, which is serious about hydrogen tech and paying good money for the brainpower to do it. (Let me twist the old rusty nail in deeper and remind us all the Harper cabal has also canned more than 2,000 of its own scientists in the past five years, and gutted hundreds of science-based programs and projects, most of them focused on the environment. Here that sucking whoosh? That's the brain trust disappearing.)

But lets also look at what's been happening outside the Whistler bubble since those stupid, ridiculous, impossible buses — which removed 4,000-plus tonnes of carbon dioxide from our beleaguered atmosphere the five years they ran — were Shanghaied.

About the time they got parked, Ballard, whose fuel cell stacks drove them, signed a $100-million contract with Volkswagen and was licensing fuel cell buses in China.

Check out the posh new Mercedes-Benz dealership at Boundary and Broadway in Vancouver. It can service hydrogen fuel cell Mercedes vehicles, slated to be in the gorgeous showroom by 2017.

If you think that's just too impossible — a bricks and mortar place for servicing fuel cell vehicles down the road from Whistler?! — check out the nearby Automotive Fuel Cell Cooperative (AFCC) plant in Burnaby that's pumping out fuel cells stacks for Mercedes, and for Ford and Nissan.

But it looks like Toyota will have the jump. It's planning to have its first commercially available hydrogen fuel cell car on the sales floor by April 2015. No fooling.

Last month Silicon Republic reported that the world's first retail hydrogen fuel cell network will be opening in California.

FirstElement — get it? As in, hydrogen is the first element in the periodic table — has signed a US$25.5-million deal to have 19 fuelling pumps pumping out hydrogen in San Francisco and Los Angeles in 2015. Toyota, Honda, Mercedes and Hyundai will all have fuel cell cars in the area. Hyundai is already leasing its fuel cell vehicle, Tuscon, to southern California drivers.

In South Korea, they're planning to build the world's largest fuel cell systems, with various organizations pumping in $1.9 billion into the joint venture.

On a different but entirely harmonious note closer to home, a couple of thousand of us went to hear Neil Young and Feist and Shane Koyczan and Robert Bateman and Margaret Atwood and David Suzuki and more this week at the last stop on the Blue Dot tour at the Orpheum. The whole Blue Dot thing is to rally us — the smart mammals with opposing thumbs — to do things differently on this precious, troubled planet of ours. Troubled by us.

I like the tagline on the program cover, right under Suzuki The Scientist, The Wise Elder's outstretched arm: "Things are only impossible until we decide that they're not anymore."

But hey, I don't mean to bum you out right before you go grocery shopping. I only wish you didn't have to — cough, cough — take an old stinky bus.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who still believes anything is possible if we set our minds to it.

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