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

Green group questions economic sense of hydrogen buses

with 10 comments

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 “Astrolounge” who is obviously an insider, since (s)he revealed that the “plan” was even worse than I imagined. Over two years later and long after most of the money has been spent, Ian Bruce of the David Suzuki Foundation has caught up – and is now being quoted by the Province yesterday.

Bruce says he is concerned about the priority of spending on the hydrogen buses as part of the 12-year $14-billion provincial transit plan announced in January of 2008.

“The new money was roughly $11 billion and of that just under $5 billion was committed from the province,” said Bruce. “Yet in the last budget we had roughly $150 million (toward public transit) so it is not even putting us close to being on track.”

The so called “transit plan” was bogus. I said that at the time as well. There was never any money – other than the funds committed to the Canada Line and this daft Olympic showcase as part of the “hydrogen highway”. The plan relied on money from the feds, and from the municipal level as well. Neither was consulted – and no commitments by either were ever made. The “plan” was simply a hasty rehashing of earlier proposals, designed to look like a plan. And there was never any thought given to how these projects might get enough operational funding.

The Gordon Campbell government was, as that time, looking forward to the election, and trying to appear green. Somehow they managed to work this trick with a totally inadequate carbon tax. Carol James seized on this as her (failed) strategy, when it would have been much easier to discredit the BC Liberals due to their much greater commitment to greenhouse gas increases through the Gateway – a major freeway expansion – the expansion of oil, gas and coal extraction and the yet to be realised plans to build more pipelines to export tar sands output, as well as the very real threat to open up drilling for oil around Haida Gwai.

Added to the question of costs is the fact that the hydrogen has to be bused in from Quebec, as it cannot be produced in B.C. in great enough quantities.

Actually that’s nonsense too. If you are going to spend these sorts of sums, a new electrolysis plant running off our own abundant hydro resources should not have been too difficult. After all, how can you have a hydrogen highway without the hydrogen? Of course, the fact that apart form these buses there are no hydrogen vehicles that need the fuel now or in the foreseeable future is just one of those nitpicking details that can be readily dismissed.

But, said BC Transit spokeswoman Joanna Morton, investing in future technologies is a must.

Actually, it isn’t. There are all sorts of well proven technologies that would increase transit use, reduce car dependency and start building a greener future. The problem is that would require a government that understands how transportation and land use needs to be changed to a more sustainable model. That would, for a start, mean abandoning freeway widening – something that Gordon Campbell has made clear he has no intention of doing even though studies the government themselves sponsored show will increase ghg emissions. It would also mean that some new funding source would have to be found to ensure that the proposed capital projects would actually be able to be operated. This is the most pressing problem in Greater Vancouver – not for BC Transit, since none of the other cities in the province will ever see modern transit investment in anything other than buses. Translink  (SoCoBriTCA) cannot afford any system expansion – and has simply raised fares and taxes to keep operating the same system it has now for the forseeable future.

The real question that needs to be answered is why this government can find millions for hydrogen buses which cannot operate effectively in Whistler and meets no identifiable needs at all, when all sorts of worthwhile projects that would increase transit use and enable a more efficient land use pattern are neglected. The Evergreen Line is the one that springs to mind, but let’s assume that BC Transit has to be involved and needs to spend in other places – so perhaps Rail for the Valley and on the E&N on the Island  come to mind. Or perhaps streetcars for Victoria. None of these looks Olympic of course. None offer photo ops with the Governator. But they would actually work to increase transit use and encourage transit oriented development, and thus actually do something effective about ghg emissions. Something that can not be claimed for hydrogen buses in Whistler.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 23, 2009 at 10:12 am

10 Responses

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  1. If the money for the hydrogen buses was indeed extracted from the transit budget then that would be consistent with the Provincial government plan to destroy public transit.

    It was my understanding that the hydrogen buses in Whistler were to be a demonstration project for the hydrogen buses themselves and not the fictitious “hydrogen highway” which does not even exist (ie there is no local source of hydrogen on the Sea to Sky Highway). The money for the demonstration buses should have come from a source other than public transit funding.

    On the other hand, if there were a local source of hydrogen the hydrogen buses in Whistler would not warrant such boundless criticism from the Suzuki Foundation. Perhaps some of the excess power from the private hydro power generators being constructed in that area could at some time in the future be used to produce hydrogen in an electrolysis plant in Whistler(?).

    I am always suspicious when some organization or journalist issues a statement about proton exchange membrane buses. More often than not they do not understand the technology or the long-term environmental benefits of hydrogen distribution and storage. I also wonder why the Suzuki foundation is focusing on hydrogen buses when there are much larger transportation issues surrounding the Olympics (such as hundreds of charter buses and drivers being brought from as far away as Texas and Southern California instead of using locally sourced buses for the Olympics). Or how about issuing a press release about the number of car-parking spaces in Whistler, which attract cars to Whistler that have a much larger environmental impact than hydrogen buses could ever have.


    November 23, 2009 at 3:38 pm

  2. […] A tale of two cities’ crossings: different takes on congestion [DJC Oregon] Green group questions economic sense of hydrogen buses [Stephen Rees's Blog] Games prompt rebirth of Robson Square rink [Globe and Mail] B.C. lags on […]

    re:place Magazine

    November 24, 2009 at 8:45 am

  3. I originally was a huge supporter of hydrogen fuel cells as a transportation solution. I mean, what’s not to like – Hydrogen is abundant, fuel cells emit only pure clean water, how much better can it be?

    But as I learned more and more I started realizing a few facts…

    – Fuel cells aren’t particularly efficient – they are about 10% efficient. You get 10% of the energy out of the hydrogen in the form of electricity, the other 90% is gone

    – Fuel cell systems are bulky and heavy – there’s just nothing you can do about this. Adding a couple of tons of pressurized gas tanks to a bus that you then have to expend energy to move around isn’t free.

    – Hydrogen needs a tremendous amount of energy to separate from whatever it’s attached to. It isn’t free – it is in fact quite costly even if you build a plant here.

    So what do you get for your fuel cell bus? You get a heavy bus with reduced passenger capacity that burns WAY more energy than competing technologies. The only time Hydrogen is “clean” energy is when the source of Hydrogen itself is clean – that means no cracking Natural Gas, no coal power. You also need to make sure you’re not using up “clean” power that was previously being used elsewhere. And remember that before you even take in to account the losses to creating the hydrogen in the first place you’re only going to get 10% of the energy out again.

    If you want a CLEAN way to provide transit then a trolley bus, street car or other directly powered electric transit is the way to go! Why waste a bunch of energy hauling around your energy source?


    November 24, 2009 at 12:33 pm

  4. We already have electric buses in operation which are more efficient that hydrogen bus could even become even in theory, if the bugs were worked out. I rode one to work this morning, and it took basically the same route as the electric street car did a century earlier.

    The electric trolley bus is a marvel of efficiency, no need for costly experiments to reduce emissions and noise from buses.

    As Bryn noted “Why waste a bunch of energy hauling around your energy source?”

    Eric Doherty

    November 26, 2009 at 9:55 pm

  5. While I don’t debate the fact that hydrogen vehicles are far from a cost effective reality, the fuel cells are far more efficient than the 10% quoted above.

    Fuel cells are anywhere from 40-70% efficient. Furthermore, the design means that the wasted energy (in the form of heat) is much more manageable than the heat coming from an internal combustion engine.

    Commercial car manufacturers are talking about production model hydrogen cars by 2015. I’m not sure I believe them, but if they have refined the technology and made it more affordable, then maybe it’s worth another look in 10 years. Supply of course is another matter.


    December 1, 2009 at 9:11 am

  6. Wikipedia has an entry under “fuel cell efficiency” which reads, in part ” A typical cell running at 0.7 V has an efficiency of about 50%, meaning that 50% of the energy content of the hydrogen is converted into electrical energy; the remaining 50% will be converted into heat. (Depending on the fuel cell system design, some fuel might leave the system unreacted, constituting an additional loss.)” However there is no citation for this assertion.

    There is an article on fuel cell vehicle efficiency (not the same thing) at

    And actually what we should really be looking at is the full life cycle efficiency – compared to the internal combustion engine running on fossil fuel. Discussing the absolute efficiency of part of the system, or theoretical potential efficiencies, is misleading.

    Stephen Rees

    December 1, 2009 at 9:22 am

  7. […] course I have covered this issue in this blog – some time ago actually – which is how they got hold of me in the first place. The key […]

  8. […] Worth to mention that it seems also to be the position stated by Stephen Rees in some of its pots and other disgressiont and obviously the viewpoint is not aimed at fuell cell, but at technology […]

  9. […] Worth to mention that it seems also to be the position stated by Stephen Rees in some of its posts and other disgression […]


    February 4, 2010 at 7:32 am

  10. […] most importantly, as with the hydrogen buses in Whistler, in BC we do not have a suitable source of hydrogen and it is now being trucked in from Quebec.  That is […]

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