Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Whistler to get 20 hydrogen buses

with 7 comments

Vancouver Sun

The provincial government pledged $45 million Monday for a hydrogen bus fleet to service Whistler in time for the 2010 Olympics.

The 20 buses will be developed by a private company and are expected to be operating in 2009. The money will also go towards developing hydrogen fuelling stations in Whistler and Victoria.

$2.25m per bus. That would get you at least six diesels or maybe three trolleys. This is an extreme example of what I said recently about alt fuel buses producing a smaller bus fleet.

This of course is not really about transport at all. It’s all about window dressing. Potemkin villages to impress the Olympic visitors. It will not make the slightest bit of difference to air quality or greenhouse gas emissions, but it will enable Gordon to pretend to be green to Arnie and the other governors. (Arnie, by the way is not the ally we had hoped. He is pushing freeways over high speed trains in California but I must not get distracted)

Hydrogen is not a fuel. It is a very inefficient storage mechanism to allow for electric energy to be applied to a moving vehicle. Hydrogen is a by product of all kinds of chemical plants – but that is not clean enough for fuel cells. Tonnes are thrown away by a plant in North Vancouver. So it is made by electrically splitting water apart and then “reassembling” it later. If the electricity is hydro this is pretty well emission free – although damns and even run of the river are not the green things we once held them to be. They have environmental impacts too. But this is a pretty inefficient way of storing electricity. Batteries (which have been extensively researched) basically weigh too much and waste a lot of energy as heat. Capacitors were going to be good, but fuel cells have centre stage right now. And while in terms of energy density they have come a long way, they are still not the silver bullet. Hydrogen being very difficult and expensive to store and lug around. Despite being the most abundant element on the planet.

The plan also involves an additional $34 million to be provided jointly by the federal and provincial governments, for B.C. Transit to operate the fleet over a five-year period.

Just what you would expect. No long term commitment to get more transit service to where it is desperately needed. No money for more transit service for the suburbs, or low income areas, or native reserves, or people with disabilities. Or pockets of high unemployment. Or places where there are jobs but no-one to fill them. These are not governments’ priorities. They just want to do a buck and wing on the world stage for two weeks, and give some more subsidies to businesses that cannot make a dollar in the marketplace.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 1, 2007 at 8:49 am

7 Responses

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  1. Why so negative? It’s a step in the right direction! What kind of car do you drive?
    Actually what they should do is build a trolley busline to Whistler, then it runs on electricity. And you could power it with the passengers pedalling stationary bikes on the bus. Ya, that’s it, that’s the ticket!


    May 2, 2007 at 10:29 am

  2. ^well the games are supposed to promote athleticism…

    Sean Orr

    May 2, 2007 at 10:31 am

  3. I drive a 1995 Dodge Caravan and what has that to do with anything?

    It is not a “step in the right direction” it is a silly waste of money. Hydrogen is not yet ready for prime time – as the hydrogen vehicle makers at this week’s conference/trade show were quick to point out. And it is instructive that governments are expected to absorb most of the R&D costs. If this was such a good idea, government could not get near it for all the elbowing by the auto makers. Who seem strangely reluctant to leap aboard. Even Toyota, who beat them all to hybrids.

    We could have had a train to Whistler still if the BC government had not been so keen to sell the family silver. And the hydrogen buses will not be in intercity service but local transit around Whistler village.

    Now if someone wants to start selling hybrid conversions for old minivans, sign me up today!

    Stephen Rees

    May 2, 2007 at 12:55 pm

  4. Smelly:

    “passengers pedalling stationary bikes on the bus”
    direct drive is more energy efficient

    Stephen Rees

    May 3, 2007 at 6:44 am

  5. This has now proven such a terrible idea.
    I live in Whistler and the whole project has gone so far into the crapper it’s clogged the neighbor’s toilet. The buses they’re getting are “Flyer” types, and, first off, they are simply too big. They can’t fit under the overpasses, or make the sharp turns involved in drop offs at ANY of the hotels in town. As such, the H2 buses are only going to be used for the routes that only travel on the highway. There are only TWO bus routes in all of Whistler that do that, meaning that at MOST 8 out of the 20 buses will be being used. Oh, but it gets stupider: The new buses short out if they go through more than 10 inches of water, they just shut down completely if you do it. Both of the routes these buses would go on frequently have deeper puddles than that, especially in the winter when the storm drains start to freeze. They have nicely redesigned the buses so that the H2 tanks are on the roof now rather than underneath, so at least they won’t explode every time they hit a speed bump like the previous design would have. Except that this redesign made them too tall to fit in the bus bays we currently have. So now they’re building a new bus depot just to house them.
    Now comes the coup final de stupide: The reason they went with Hydrogen over electric, is that the electric buses would take too long to charge from a standard outlet. All 8 being used out of twenty,. They initially thought they would be using all of them so that at least is understandable, they didn’t know switching them out would be an option. Now, they were planning the new bus depot before the hydrogen bus plan; however, the new depot is directly adjacent to a power sub-station. You’re telling me they couldn’t have asked BC hydro to run them a high power line to charge them fast enough? And don’t think no one thought about it either. BC Hydro was pushing for electric buses and offered to provide high current lines to charge them but they were shot down. Now, obviously, BC Hydro really just wanted that sweet sweet bus money, but hydrogen was eventually selected ONLY because it was the environmental buzzword at the time. I’m dead serious, the mayor admitted it.
    Hydrogen is a stupid power source. Especially somewhere like Whistler where it gets too cold for the fuel cell to work in the winter, so they have to be equipped with a special heater to run. This is just another reason I think they should have gone electric. Since batteries expend a lot of energy as heat, you can use that heat to help keep the bus interior warm, save on using the heater as much, and not waste the heat byproduct. Though if you didn’t want to do that, you could use some of that 45 million dollars to have Ballard power (one of the companies involved in making the new buses) devise an more efficient battery, with that kind of funding I’m sure they could work up something.
    …Wow I’m ranting like a madman. I’ll summarize:
    Flawed concept, poor planning, sloppy execution.
    Electric good, Hydrogen bad.
    — if you actually read this whole thing I commend your dedication.


    September 10, 2009 at 5:33 pm

  6. Astrolounge,
    Thank you for the explanation, even though it was long, it was thorough. I used to be a big fan of fuel cells but I could never see where we were going to fuel them from. As you say they would have been better off with electric vehicles. They already tried running fuel cell buses in Coquitlam several years ago and they know that they have to keep them heated.

    If they really wanted to be green and sustainable, and save money they should have double tracked the railway and electrified it to run tram-trains instead of making a 4 lane highway.


    November 22, 2009 at 9:29 pm

  7. […] a comment » It was a while ago now that I questioned the hydrogen bus plan for Whistler,  in fact May 1, 2007. That post attracted a comment from someone using the pen name […]

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