Stephen Rees's blog

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

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

8 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. As always, thanks for asking the right questions. Capitalism is, of course, the dominant word in “green” capitalism.

    Ashley Webster

    March 12, 2010 at 11:08 am

  2. I’m all for quieter and cleaner buses, however. And this isn’t really free-market capitalism, it’s governemnt subsidies/welfare to (nacent) industry.

    I agree there are risks with this, but i wouldn’t be quick to judge. Once we have a hydrogen plant in North vancouver and no longer have to ship it in from quebec, then it would be interesting to see the O+M costs for these buses.

    From a ‘governemnt resources to real-life transit problems’ view this is not a wise use of money. From a ‘ground floor investment in green technology that may have widespread use’ i can see the potential.

    The risk (as with all subsidies to business) is the governement trying to pick out the winners. Is this another fast ferries in the making?


    March 12, 2010 at 12:45 pm

  3. If you go to the Proterra site,

    you will see that they are primarily in the “supercapacitor” business

    and hydrogen power is just a “range extension”, so one can understand the hydrogen engine is enough to power the bus…

    It even look they probably don’t run on hydrogen because fuel cell engine (at least on Whistler bus) make noise.

    Pproterra will have probably venture in the Hydrogen business, in order to grab its share of the federal Hydrogen Boondoggle windfall…but really their business seems super fast charging bus,

    and if what they say in bear some reality for a style nascent technology.

    Why would you like bother with Hydrogen bus?


    March 12, 2010 at 9:40 pm

  4. correcting some mistake:

    … hydrogen power is just a “range extension”, so one can understand the hydrogen engine is NOT enough to power the bus…

    …and if what they say in bear some reality and considering it is STILL a nascent technology.

    Why would you like bother with Hydrogen?


    March 12, 2010 at 9:50 pm

  5. I’m generally not a NIMBY but I think it’s fair to say I really don’t want a hydrogen plant in my little municipality and hydrogen storage tanks on my bus route (10 metres from the road) lest it blow up.

    They cut down a lot of trees to build that hydrogen plant(?) in Whistler.

    I read about the rare earth elements too. I’ve also heard, because — what was it, nuclear or coal — plants cannot be shut down at night and the energy needs to go somewhere, the US sells us their dirty electricity at night. That means we’re increasing our carbon footprint with devices used or left on overnight. That would include charging our EVs.

    Erika Rathje

    March 12, 2010 at 11:39 pm

  6. ^ if you live in north vancouver, it’s there already. They are waiting for the liquifier to be installed and then they can ship 2 week liquified supply to whistler as opposed to getting it from from Quebec.

    and it is neat in that they use primarily waste Hydrogen from 2 other industrial plants to make useable hydrogen. There are other industrial sites in BC where this can be implemented.

    “Dozens of metric tonnes of hydrogen waft into the sky every day, and HTEC’s 1,300-kilogram draw will still only take about a tenth of it, at a price comparable to natural gas. A few other firms draw some waste gas, but the vast majority still goes unused.”

    I am unsure if hydrogen is robust enough to use as a fuel for personal vehicles, but if it is going to work, IMO it will work commercially in larger scale operations like buses.


    March 13, 2010 at 12:25 am

  7. […] buys Garden City lands in $59m deal that mayor called ‘unwise’ [The Vancouver Sun] Transit tests out hybrid bus [Stephen Rees's Blog] INTERNATIONAL The 10 Most Expensive Transit Projects of the Decade [The […]

    re:place Magazine

    March 13, 2010 at 2:54 pm

  8. How heavy are the batteries and how much fuel does that consume?

    Lewis N. Villegas

    March 15, 2010 at 12:33 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: