Let the Games begin

BC Transit rolls out the world’s first hydrogen fuel cell fleet at the XXI Winter Olympic Games.

By David Hubbard

BCT at Whistler

The February launch in British Columbia of the first full-fledged fleet of hydrogen fuel cell buses marks a historic turning point in the bus industry. From an operator’s perspective it is perhaps reason enough for Vancouver to have landed the XXI Olympic Winter Games.

The revolutionary vehicles began arriving in Vancouver this past October when New Flyer delivered Bus One to the owner, BC Transit. All 20 vehicles are now signed, sealed and delivered.

The hydrogen fuel cell zero-emission fleet begins inaugural service this month in time for the Olympic Games with the celebration continuing through the Paralympic Winter Games in March. From then on the buses meld into the resort fleet of 28 buses as the backbone of the heavily used Whistler Transit System, a subsidiary of Pacific Western Transportation (PWT). The 50-year old privately held company operates transit, motorcoach and school bus services from its base in Calgary, AB.
Whistler Transit Service operates in the Whistler, Squamish and Pemberton area under contract to B.C. Transit, which contracted the company to provide enhanced Games Time service during the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.

BC Transit says its goal is to demonstrate for the first time the integration of hydrogen fuel cell buses into an urban transit system and determine their viability in other communities. BC Transit President and CEO Manuel Achadinha says the development of this fleet also supports British Columbia’s commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

BC Transit says apart from the graphics on the side of the bus that denote fuel cell power and zero-emissions, the only difference passengers may notice is a smoother, quieter ride. The torque from an electric drive is immediate. Pulling away from stops and accelerating is nearly instantaneous. The low-floor buses can travel at top speed of 90 kilometers per hour, and have a range of 450 to 500 kilometers before refueling.

BC Transit President and CEO Manuel Achadinha says the development of this fleet jump-starts the commitment by British Columbia and BC Transit to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

“From introducing the first low-floor conventional and double-deck buses in North America, to using biodiesel and hybrid technology within its fleet, BC Transit is excited to deliver the world’s first demonstration fleet of 20 hydrogen fuel cell powered buses operating in a single transit operation,” says Achadinha. “BC Transit leads the way in adopting new technologies that support sustainable practices and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, helping the province achieve its goal of lowering emissions by 33 percent by 2020.”

This adventurous look to the future encompasses the collective vision for the vehicles from New Flyer Industries, Winnipeg, MB, Ballard Power Systems, Burnaby, BC, for fuel cell technology, and hybrid propulsion from ISE Corporation, San Diego, CA. Dynetek Industries, Calgary, AB, worked out the hydrogen storage system and Air Liquide, Montreal, QC, and HTECH, North Vancouver, BC, are the arms for fuel supply and supplemental gas.

The total venture has the backing from the Province of British Columbia and the Government of Canada. The total cost for the hydrogen bus fleet is $89 million with $45 million coming from the Public Transit Capital Trust fund and the remaining $44 million provided by British Columbia and BC Transit.

BC Transit chose New Flyer, Winnipeg, MB, Canada, as prime contractor for the fuel cell mass transit initiative. New Flyer says the project has allowed its work with Ballard Power Systems to continue what it began more than 10 years ago. New Flyer has been working on hydrogen technology since the early 1990s. Ballard has been involved in fuel cell bus development and testing for 15 years, logging more than 115,000 hours and 1.8 million kilometers in revenue service during that time.

The BC Transit fleet incorporates the Ballard HD6 heavy-duty fuel cell module with improved power density for mass transit applications. ISE is supplying its ThunderVolt® hybrid fuel cell drive systems that work with Siemens electric drive components. The powertrain comprised of the Ballard fuel cells and ISE hybrid fuel cell drive system and lithium battery energy storage fits neatly into the 41-ft New Flyer chassis.

Prior to the release of the first vehicle the ISE drive system underwent rigorous cold chamber testing to ensure its smooth operation during the coldest winters. ISE reported a reliable system at temperatures as low as -20C.

The BC Transit and Ballard Power Systems connection dates back to their work in the early 1990s with the Canadian Federal Government Fuel Cell Alliance. In 2004 BC Transit believed the global market needed to see a public transit agency take the big step. “To accurately assess the operational viability of hydrogen fuel cell buses required a complete fleet,” says Achadinha. “Beginning with this momentous demonstration during the Winter Olympic Games, BC Transit becomes the first transit agency in the world to operate a hydrogen fuel cell bus fleet of this size.” Ballard Power Systems says with fuel cell technology proven through 130 vehicles in service around the world, volume sales is the only remaining hurdle to its commercialization.

“Now is the time for transit agencies to be thinking on grander scale and making bigger decisions about implementing hydrogen technology and its related products,” says Paul Cass, Ballard Systems director of applications engineering. “Ballard just builds the power source. We cannot drive the bus market, but we are trying to get the message out that this technology is clearly ready to go. The industry has reached the point where only more vehicles in operation will lower the cost.”

Currently the cost of one hydrogen fuel cell bus is about $2.2 million. The companies involved in this project believe by 2015 the cost of hydrogen fuel cell buses should be getting close to the price of hybrid-electric diesel vehicles.
The BC Transit hydrogen fuel cell demonstration fleet is a member of the Hydrogen Highway, a large-scale showcase for the coordinated demonstration and deployment of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies. The Highway is essentially a network of demonstration projects anchored in British Columbia at Whistler, Vancouver, Victoria, Surrey, Vancouver International Airport and North Vancouver. By purchasing and using the associated technologies the project leaders view the Hydrogen Highway as the symbol for their route to the future.

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