With a decision on the future of Whistler’s bus fleet expected in coming weeks, the province will need to weigh the environmental benefits of the world’s largest hydrogen fuel cell fleet against escalating maintenance and repair costs.
In 2009, BC Transit introduced 20 hydrogen fuel cell buses to the resort as part of a five-year demonstration project that will conclude March 31. Public affairs officer Kate Trotter said in an email that B.C.’s Ministry of Transportation is currently reviewing the pilot program with BC Transit and other industry partners and “will have more to say in the near future” on Whistler’s fleet.
Like gasoline, the buses pump hydrogen into a tank, which is then fed into a fuel cell where it is electrochemically converted into electricity. Hydrogen fuel cells are two to three times more energy efficient than traditional gasoline or diesel engines and Whistler’s buses produce 60 per cent less carbon dioxide annually than their diesel counterparts, according to the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association (CHFCA). While the environmental benefits of Whistler’s fleet are evident, the hydrogen buses require more frequent maintenance than diesel buses at a considerably higher cost. Typically, BC Transit’s diesel buses require repairs after 5,000km on the road, said corporate spokesperson Meribeth Burton, while Whistler’s hydrogen vehicles on average require work after 3,000km. Burton also noted that in the last week, half of Whistler’s hydrogen fleet has required maintenance, although she called the figure “an anomaly.” Maintenance costs for a diesel bus average 64 cents per kilometre, and $1 for a hydrogen bus, Burton said, with those costs expected to increase to $2.28 per kilometre by the end of the five-year project as component and part warranties expire.
“The costs are higher, (the hydrogen buses) are a little bit more high maintenance, but at the same time they’ve provided more than 3 million kilometres of revenue service, so they’re performing to what they’re supposed to do. The project’s on time, and it’s certainly on budget still at this point, so the cost overruns haven’t taken off budget,” said Burton.
The total cost of the five-year project is $89.5 million, shared by the federal and provincial governments, the CHFCA and the municipality. The RMOW contributed $16.8 million to the project, and these funds reflect its contributions for 20 diesel fuel buses and the estimated costs associated with their operations over the five years. Incremental costs are not covered by the municipality, but rather its project funding partners. The province contributes $1.7 million annually to cover these incremental costs, Burton confirmed, who admitted there have been some challenges BC Transit has had to overcome in implementing the hydrogen fuel technology over the past four and a half years.
“BC Transit takes innovation really seriously, it’s one of our core values, and we knew going into this with an untested product, in that we’re the world’s largest fleet of hydrogen fuel cell buses, that there’d be a learning curve.,” she said. “We’ve learned a great deal about the technology but I don’t know that when you’re doing any kind of demonstration like this that you can be truly prepared for what’s ahead, because you’re leading the industry.”
As council’s representative on the municipality’s Transit Management Advisory Committee, Jack Crompton said he’s “pleased” the resort has been a part of the pilot project with the province.
“We haven’t had to bear the majority of the costs, and what we’re most interested going forward is getting cost-effective transit service that helps our community get from point to point,” he said. “Obviously we’d love the most environmentally sensitive transportation option we can find, but we want it to be cost-effective as well.”
No matter the future of Whistler’s industry-leading fleet, Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden sees the hydrogen fuel buses as a major step up from the resort’s previous transit vehicles.
“Our fleet before we received the hydrogen bus component was held together with duct tape and string, so this fleet is a vast improvement over what we had,” she said. “Depending on what the fleet is replaced with, it’s a little premature to comment on whether I’ll be disappointed in seeing the hydrogen buses leave or not.”
Whistler Transit staff could not be reached for comment by press time.