B.C. Transit Quietly Sells Off Hydrogen Buses

BC Transit City Bus

By Jonny Wakefield

December 11, 2014

B.C. Transit is ending its experiment with hydrogen-powered buses, and it's safe to say the outcome is not one 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.

Now, it's unclear what will happen to the buses, and to hydrogen power in Canada's transportation sector in general.

B.C. Transit is "exploring various options" for the Whistler fleet, including a return to diesel. It will close a bidding process for the buses on Dec. 19, a CBC report states.

According to the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association, B.C. Transit had the world’s largest fleet of zero-emission fuel cell electric buses. The provincial and federal governments split the bill for the trial fleet, which cost around $89 million.

The hydrogen fuel cells in the buses are built by Burnaby-based Ballard Power Systems. Eric Denhoff, president and CEO of the fuel cell association, said the sale was evidence that B.C. Transit management "doesn't like new technology."

It didn’t help that hydrogen to fuel the buses had to be trucked in from Quebec. Air Liquide had expressed interest in building a hydrogen fuel plant in North Vancouver, but the province's lack of interest in further investment in the hydrogen fleet nipped the project in the bud. 

According to Ballard Power, the Whistler fleet cost $1.34 per kilometer to run, roughly double the 65 cents it costs to operate a diesel bus. However, Denhoff said the cells kept thousands of tons of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.  

While B.C. 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 refuelling 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 busesbetween 2017 and 2020.

An ongoing trial in Winnipeg might provide more insight into sustainable transit fleets in Western Canada. The Winnipeg Transit authority is currently testing four electric buses ahead of a decision on a larger shift away from diesel.

While the authority is investigating battery, LNG, overhead electric and hydrogen power systems, transit boss Dave Wardrop has expressed a preference for electric on several occasions.