Whistler's hydrogen fuel cell bus program in jeopardy

The future of the Whistler’s hydrogen fuel cell buses — the largest fleet in the world — is in doubt after BC Transit said it cannot afford to continue to run and maintain the fleet when the $89-million demonstration program wraps up next spring.

Information obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request by the Canadian Autoworkers’ Union 333 suggests Whistler’s 20 hydrogen fuel cell buses cost three times more for maintenance and fuel costs than the conventional Nova diesel buses they replaced in 2009.

BC Transit deployed the hydrogen bus fleet in 2009 as part of a grand scheme by Gordon Campbell’s Liberals to showcase fuel cell technology during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games and have a “hydrogen highway” stretching from Whistler to California.

That didn’t happen and hydrogen is now trucked from Quebec every 10 days, instead of from a hoped-for fuelling station in B.C. Much-hyped plans for growth in the fuel cell market, which would have pushed down the costs for infrastructure and parts, also didn’t materialize, which means BC Transit is paying a higher price for maintenance and labour for hydrogen buses compared with the diesel buses.

The buses — which cost $2.1 million each, about four times the price of a diesel bus — are powered by hydrogen fuel cells provided by Burnaby’s Ballard Power Systems. They produce no greenhouse gas emissions and can be twice as energy-efficient as conventional buses. Eight hydrogen tanks hold in total about 60 kilograms of hydrogen, on which the bus should be able to travel 500 kilometres.

But a midterm evaluation included in the FOI information suggests the average fuel range is below the amount specified in the contract and is worse during the winter months, when water in the fuel cells can freeze and prevent the buses from starting or running efficiently. It notes hydrogen fuel costs, at an average $2.28/km, are three times the cost of diesel, while maintenance costs $1 per kilometre, compared with 65 cents/km for diesel buses.

“It is expensive to maintain and expensive to fuel,” BC Transit spokeswoman Meribeth Burton said.

The hydrogen fleet has been integrated into the regular operations of Whistler’s transit system, accounting for two-thirds of all buses in the resort municipality. Whistler and BC Transit, which is responsible for transit systems outside Metro Vancouver, share the fleet’s operating costs. The province pays another $1.8 million annually to cover the incremental costs of the hydrogen fuel cell project over the five years.

The resort municipality pays about 46 per cent of the fleet operating costs through property taxes and fares, which cost $2.50 per passenger ride.

Burton noted that while her organization had “anticipated surprises” when the program started, it isn’t sure what is going to happen next March, especially if the province decides it will no longer contribute the additional $1.8 million. If that happens, she said, the hydrogen buses could be sold and replaced with diesel or other alternatives because the hydrogen costs are too much for BC Transit and Whistler to bear.

“Without the annual support for the incremental costs, it would not be feasible,” Burton said. “We will not be able to assume those costs. It will be up to the province to decide what we do next.”

Burton maintains BC Transit was excited about the scope and size of the project, which has recorded three million passenger trips since it started. But while many parts of the system were successful, she said, others fell short.

“On many levels it has been a success story,” she said. “We’ve learned a lot about the technology and it was an opportunity to do something really unique in the market. We’ll have to see what the future holds.”

Ben Williams, president of CAW 333 in Victoria, maintains the hydrogen buses should be scrapped and the money used to provide transit in other areas of the province, such as Victoria. It added it doesn’t make sense to haul fuel from Quebec when the idea is to run the buses to reduce carbon and greenhouse gas emissions.

“I wasn’t surprised to be seeing this unbelievable cost when they’re actually trucking the hydrogen from Quebec,” Williams said. “As it stands now it’s not viable … even though it’s in Whistler, it affects riders in Victoria. Money is so tight when it comes to transit systems in the first place.”

Whistler municipal officials declined to comment, referring any questions to BC Transit.

Burton expects a decision will be made soon on whether to keep the buses after next spring, noting it will take time to order new buses, if that’s the route the province wants to take.

B.C. Transportation Minister Todd Stone was not available for an interview Monday, but ministry spokesman Robert Adam said in an email that more information should be available in a couple of weeks.

“We are working with BC Transit and industry partners and reviewing the demonstration pilot,” he wrote.

TransLink, which runs Metro Vancouver’s transit system, does not have any hydrogen buses, according to spokeswoman Jiana Ling.

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