Are Hydrogen Buses Still the Transportation of the Future?
Hydrogen fuel cell buses have been hailed as the clean transportation of the future.
A fuel cell bus is a bus that uses a hydrogen fuel cell as its power source for electrically driven wheels, sometimes augmented in a hybrid fashion with batteries or a supercapacitor.
In the U.S., several cities are currently conducting test programs using these buses. Flint, Mich., has been operating a hydrogen bus since last summer; Cleveland launched a hydrogen bus program in January; and in the East Bay in California, AC Transit now runs 12 third-generation hydrogen fuel-cell buses.
No Toxic Emissions
Using hydrogen as an alternative fuel is exciting because it does not pollute the local environment, which is great news for human health. Instead of noxious gases, hydrogen powered vehicles only emit water vapor.
In addition, it has a quick refueling process and has a high energy density relative to battery technology, so it is not as limited in range.
Because of these benefits, among others, eight hydrogen fuel cell buses entered service in London in 2011 and are being used on a central bus route. They are part of a global project, with buses being tried out in ten cities on three continents, including: London (United Kingdom), Perth (Australia), Reykjavik (Iceland), Beijing (China), Amsterdam (Netherlands), Barcelona & Madrid (Spain), Berlin & Hamburg (Germany), and Luxembourg (Luxembourg).
That all sounds like great news for the future of this green transportation, but there is a downside.
Hydrogen Buses Are Pricey
Hydrogen fuel cells are expensive; it is for this reason that the ski resort town of Whistler, British Columbia, is ending its hydrogen fuel-cell bus program and switching back to diesel.
As Scientific American reports:
The 20-bus project was launched ahead of the 2010 Winter Olympics to showcase the technology before an international audience in a location with challenging terrain and climatic conditions. This month, the British Columbia Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure confirmed it will not be continuing with the demonstration project after it concludes in March 2014.
The ministry refused an offer from the Canadian fuel-cell module provider Ballard Power Systems to run the buses for an additional five years, on account of the cost. The price tag of the completed five-year project was 89.5 million Canadian dollars, provided largely by the federal and provincial governments. The municipality of Whistler supplied CA $16.8 million of the total, which represents the estimated cost of operating 20 diesel buses over the same period.
Why is the cost so high? For one reason, the buses themselves are expensive; they also require more frequent maintenance than their diesel counterparts. Then there’s the problem of getting the hydrogen; for the Whistler program, the renewable hydrogen had to be trucked in from Quebec, about 1,800 miles away.
The Future of Clean Transportation
Still, the Whistler project is being heralded as a success. Even with the carbon footprint incurred by transporting the fuel across the country, the pilot produced 65 percent less emissions than a 20-unit diesel fleet would have emitted.
“The demonstration of this zero-emission bus fleet at Whistler has enabled industry to improve their knowledge of hydrogen fuel-cell buses, generating international business opportunities for this made-in-B.C. technology,” said a British Columbia ministry spokesperson. “As a result, the next generation of buses are being deployed around the world.”
Hydrogen fuel cell buses, with their zero toxic emissions, can clearly play a huge part in long-term solutions for the fight against climate change. And it’s good to know that the availability of public hydrogen stations in the United States is rapidly increasing, led by California, which currently has nine public stations available and 19 more in development.
Let’s hear it for green transportation!
Photo Credit: citytransportinfo