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Archive for March 12th, 2010

Transit tests out hybrid bus

with 8 comments

Times Colonist

Can you hear the wailing and the gnashing of teeth? Once again the sub editors have undermined a transit story. The whole point about this bus isn’t that it is a “hybrid” (I am not at all sure it meets any normal usage of that term) but that it runs on hydrogen.

The pictures that accompany the article show that photographer Darren Stone was playing around with a wide angle – maybe even “fish eye” – lens, and it is this quite difficult to determine what the thing really looks like.

BC Transit CEO Manuel Achadinha with a fuel cell hybrid powered bus in Victoria, B.C. March 11, 2010.

BC Transit CEO Manuel Achadinha with a fuel cell hybrid powered bus in Victoria, B.C. March 11, 2010.

Built to be environmentally friendly, its batteries can be recharged at night by plugging it in to the electrical grid and hydrogen fuel tanks — stored in the roof of the bus — can be refilled.

OK so that explains the “hybrid” tag – so then we are back to the usual quibble I have about the claims that are made about “environmentally friendly”. It all depends on where the electricity comes from – and the hydrogen for that matter. In BC we get most of our power from existing hydro, so it is about as clean a power source as you can get. There was a lot of environmental impact when the dams were built and the valleys flooded – but most of that was in the past. Of course, a lot of fish habitat has never been restored or replaced either, but compared to other power stations hydro generation is reasonably benign. But elsewhere in North America a lot of electricity comes from coal – which is about as bad as it can be. And a lot of new power generation in BC is going to be a lot less environmentally friendly than it could be. That’s because in the rush to allow private sector generators to make a lot of money, many corners were cut off – including the critical environmental assessment process.

But I digress.

B.C. Transit spent about $15,000 and the Canadian and U.S. federal governments each chipped in $45,000 to bring the bus to Victoria

Which is not very much for a project like this – the demo of the Bombardier trams here cost a great deal more!

But what does it really tell us? That one of these buses – which currently cost double a conventional bus – will be quieter and a bit cleaner. No mention, you notice, of trolleybuses – which can do all of this as far as the wires reach. I also wonder if the batteries are really the best choice. They tend to be a significant environmental issue themselves: might super-capacitors be a better choice? I don’t know, I am not an engineer – and there is no information in the story about what type of batteries these are. And I read somewhere recently (no, I am not going to look it up) that shortages of rare earth elements may be more significant than peak oil.

But 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 not at all environmentally friendly. Indeed, it is not economical nor is it energy efficient. The “hydrogen highway” was just the Potempkin village  put up for Olympic PR purposes.

It might be a pretty bus – I like the idea of lightweight composite materials: they could be used in any bus. It might be a quiet bus – but then so are trolleybuses. But I really do not see why anyone within Transit should get excited about hydrogen. Frankly, we cannot afford it. Transit is starved of cash, and needs to make the most of every dollar. And I am afraid that experience to date of just about every “alternative fuel” (and hydrogen is not really a fuel either – its just an expensive way to store and move electricity) has been that they have been both expensive and technically inferior to well established technologies.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 12, 2010 at 10:49 am