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

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Carrie-Anne Brown
Carrie-Anne Brownabout a year ago

thanks for sharing

Donna Ferguson
Donna F.1 years ago

wow! ty for a hopeful article

Alfredo Balmaseda

If it's just not ready yet, it does not mean it's not the energy of the future. Should hydrogen replace oil, definitely! It will, it's easier to get once you have solar power, easier to produce on-site and with a much higher energy output. Can it be dangerous, sure, but there are technologies available right now to make it less explosive and easier to handle.

Dale O.

Interesting article. We need more alternatives to oil and gas, these are not going to last forever and have a lot of environmental impact.

Ken W.
Ken W.1 years ago


Kelly Davis-steel
Kelly d.1 years ago

thank you

Carol P.
Carol P.1 years ago

Well, we're going to have to do something when big oil ends. I'm just glad to hear that technology exists, even if it isn't economically feasible yet. And just think how much better traffic will be when no one can afford to drive their cars anymore and we're all on public transportation.

Katherine May Williams

Just about anything that reduces the amount of exhaust fumes in London gets an enthusiastic thumbs up from me. Buses are the worst, always idling, stopping and starting, pumping out obscene amounts of choking fumes. It's really unpleasant to breathe in some of the busiest roads in London.

Vicky Barman
Vicky Barman1 years ago

according to hess law, energy liberated by hydrogen in bonding with water is same as disassociation. i don't understand how could engineers achieve efficient process in this conversion. still hydrogen being explosive and difficult to handle, i don't see anything feasible in this project. i think we need to reduce our consumption and better energy management to handle
the crisis.

Margaret Skeel
Margaret Skeel1 years ago

Solar panels used to be very pricey too... the more a technology develops the more it comes down in price. Hydrogen power is definitely something we should consider...