The Myth of Fuel Cell Buses

There are times that the hot air surrounding transit technology forces my hand, and I have to take a stand on what really should be a marginal, non-starter of an issue.

In reviewing possible transit services in the eastern waterfront, one group, the Central Waterfront Neighbourhood Association (CWNA), is advocating not just that we use buses in place of LRT, but that we use hydrogen-fuelled buses.  Their presentation material includes a PowerPoint from Ballard Power Systems who have been trying for years to make a go of this technology. 

According to a Ballard press release dated October 23, 2006, there are only 36 buses operating worldwide that have, collectively, operated over 1.5-million km of service.  Let’s put that in context.  In 2005, the TTC bus fleet averaged just under 70,000 km/vehicle, or 2.5-million km for 36 buses.  That is over 60% more than the total mileage operated by all of the Ballard buses running worldwide.

Meanwhile, worldwide interest is focussed on hybrid diesel-electric buses on which a diesel generator powers an electric motor through a power storage system.  Hundreds of these vehicles are running in many cities, and the TTC already has 90 of its first 150-bus order in service.

There is no question that small-scale trials of hydrogen buses have been undertaken in many places, but it is unclear how this technology will stack up against diesel hybrids, especially considering that far more work is underway to produce hybrid buses that do not require the special fuelling facilities of hydrogen.

The CWNA advances a number of anti-streetcar and pro-hydrogen bus arguments in their comments on the LRT proposals.  Although there is a reference to “hybrid and/or hydrogen-powered buses”, only “hydrogen” appears in most of their comments, and of course the Ballard presentation is hydrogen fuel-cell-specific because that’s what Ballard is selling.

One particularly outrageous claim is that a fleet of hydrogen buses could fuel up at the wind-powered station at the CNE where, among other things, hydrogen is produced.  There is no mention of the amount of hydrogen needed to run a bus fleet, nor of the question of a storage and fuelling facility to deal with days when the system is becalmed.  Moreover, if power from the wind station is used to create hydrogen, this power is not available to feed into the Toronto power grid.  One way or another, a hydrogen bus is going to use power that might otherwise have offset fossil fuel requirements for the grid as a whole.

Meanwhile, streetcars (described as “old technology” despite their use worldwide) are charged with

  • burning electricity from fossil fuels,
  • having unacceptable noise and vibration to the point that they would destroy the experience of visitors, workers and pedestrians along Queen’s Quay and, wait for it,
  • would frighten cyclists, pedestrians and babies in strollers.

Possibly, a replacement of motorcars with horse-drawn carriages would have the desired calming effect, although other environmental problems would ensue.

I am particularly galled by the repeated appearance of noise and vibration both in the CWNA’s comments and in some of the official material from the study team.  There is no question that the original Harbourfront line is a bad neighbour because the track was built before the TTC learned what quiet streetcar track looked like.  The track on Queen’s Quay is corrugated and quite noisy in places until you hit the new track west of Spadina (it is also not particularly good on Spadina north to King which was built at the same time).

The TTC needs to do serious engineering studies of noise and vibration for all transit modes and for different parts of the city where there are variations in track quality, pavement structure and sub-surface water table (wet ground carries vibration and noise far more than dry).  We can’t be studying the first round in what will become an LRT network when we put out information that LRT may be too noisy for the neighbours.

Meanwhile, back in Ballard’s home city, Vancouver, TransLink is proud to tell people that it is now replacing its trolleybus fleet with 228 new low-floor trolleybuses.  You can go to this link and read about this and other enhancements now in progress.  There isn’t a fuel cell bus in sight.

10 thoughts on “The Myth of Fuel Cell Buses

  1. I think it’s a real sin that we lost our trolley bus system in the early 90s.  If Vancouver is purchasing new electric trolley buses, a manufacturer must still be making them.

    The trolley buses on Ossington as I recall were great. They were very quiet (inside and out), non-polluting, and didn’t mess up the road.

    What about streetcar subways with closely spaced very inexpensive stations (like Queens Quay)?  Wouldn’t an underground streetcar line be much cheaper to build that a full subway (with $100M stations)?

    Picture this — an undergound streetcar line on Queen with POP and VIVA-like ticket machines on the platforms … now there’s an idea.

    Steve:  The trolleybus is alive and well elsewhere in the world.  We lost ours in Toronto thanks to collusion between various forces in the TTC, Queen’s Park and private industry to foist natural gas buses on us.  That sad story in our transit history is now over.  We don’t need another one.

    As for “cheap” subways, there is no such thing.  The tunnel on Bay Street has two advantages not shared by many other sites.  It is quite shallow and it only has two small stations, one of which (Union) is badly under capacity for demand.  The same would not be the case for LRT on major streets.  Having said that, there are some locations such as the central part of Eglinton where an LRT tunnel would be needed.

    The advantage of LRT is that, unlike a true subway, it doesn’t have to stay underground and you can save a lot on construction costs by coming up to the surface where space exists.


  2. It’s weird how the CWNA doesn’t research much on hydrogen fuel.  For hydrogen fuel, currently the most common ways of getting it is either extract it from natural gas, or by electrolysis (through water).

    Hydrogen, either comes from natural gas or water (through electrolysis).  It is highly expensive, and it is unknown how the hydrogen will react to cold winter climate.

    Hydrogen fuel bus

    burns fossil fuels (the energy has to come from somewhere)
    costs a lot more to run
    there’s only been so few
    takes energy to produce

    More thought should be put into implementing a hydrogen bus fleet instead of an LRT.

    Steve:  After saying so much about how hydrogen buses may not work or be too expensive, I don’t understand your advocacy for more thought for this mode.


  3. Sounds like the CWNA is filled with pie-in-the-sky, good intentioned, but highly naïve types (the sort whose parents still wear pony-tails adn tie-dies. The 60’s are DEAD, man!).

    Steve:  Actually, I suspect that the “CWNA” such as it is has been sold a bill-of-goods by one or two folks on their executive and are “supporting” a totally misrepresented comparison between technologies. 

    God help us if we do have a repeat of the CNG conspiracy.  Besides, I could never understand the electric power plant vs. individual car gas consumption thing.  Surely it is still an envrionmental improvement to have one electric vehicle carrying up to 100 people replacing up to 100 cars.

    And since the life span of a rail vehicle is typically longer than any rubber-tired one, isn’t the savings on manufactured material also substantial?


  4. Steve

    Where are the CWNA based?  Because if it’s in the Donlands under development they’re representing a lot of folks who don’t live there yet and who will take a different view when gridlock hits.

    Steve:  The CWNA takes the position that whatever happens in one part of the waterfront affects others as well.  They represent the area affected by the “East Bayfront” part of the study, and necessarily service from the West Don or Port Lands will pass through their neighbourhood.  I will defend their right to have an interest even if I don’t agree at all with what they advocate, just as I would expect them to let me, a foreigner from Broadview and Danforth comment on the waterfront on the grounds that what happens there affects the future of LRT citywide.

    What you need is someone handy with photoshop and maths to:

    calculate the number of buses in the city
    calculate how much hydrogen it would take to fuel them
    calculate how many wind turbines it would take to generate this fuel (a lot, given that we don’t exist in a flat prairie or an oceanic island.)
    photoshop the turbines onto the Waterfront and Toronto Island and the dead birds under the towers
    photoshop the buses queueing up to fuel OR photoshop the protesting crowds as hydrogen tankers make their way through Toronto streets to garages.

    Steve:  Stay tuned for further details. 

    Now, that’s a simplistic analysis but they started it.  Hydrogen is more difficult to contain than CNG and has a low volumetric energy density and when you add the containment structures a low energy density by weight.

    Underground usage such as the terminals under high-rises under discussion would probably be out of the question. Using wind power to generate hydrogen means you aren’t displacing coal and oil fired generation from the grid and until that’s gone, that should be the goal.

    If the residents are concerned about visual intrusion they can pay for APS and TTC can run Citadis on it 🙂

    One final point – I think the CLRV is partially the problem when it comes to public perception.  Visually it’s not much longer than a bus and I think the public sees them as 1:1 replaceable.  I’m sure you heard such arguments in the 70s.

    Perhaps the ALRV fleet should be the one getting a refit and the CLRVs getting a 1:1 replacement with at least 30m modular trams so that people appreciate the extra capacity streetcars bring.  This has implications for headways but that’s a matter of changing the mindset to one where buses feed streetcar ROWs as much as subways.


  5. As reported in a 2005 press release, Vancouver just finished a trial of five different bus technologies. In the second phase, they will trial HCNG buses with a blend of hydrogen and compressed natural gas. But in all of these trials, there’s not a fuel cell in sight.

    Regardless, fuel cell buses should be evaluated in a controlled trial of this type – they shouldn’t just be brought in for the waterfront as an untested technology just because they’re allegedly a “green” solution.


  6. Steve:

    I think Kendrew Leung means that if the advocates for hydrogen buses gave it more thought, they’d see that hydrogen buses were a poor idea for the reasons he lists. I don’t think he means to advocate himself for hydrogen buses.

    But he can correct me if I’m wrong…


  7. To clarify what David Pritchard said – the “HCNG” bus that he referred to will operate on hydrogen wastes generated by the previous fuel cell bus project. An interesting note: the Ballard fuel cell buses tested by TransLink have been retro-fitted into diesel-electric hybrid buses – as part of their bus demonstration project.


  8. I saw Dr. Geoffrey Ballard (founder of Ballard power systems) in a lecture at Queen’s University 2 years ago. During this lecture, Dr. Ballard himself admitted that fuel cell technology was many, many years off if it could ever work in cars. Considering his company is at the forefront of fuel cell research, he knows what he’s talking about.

    The basic problem with fuel cells is the amount of energy loss in terms of the entire fuel cycle. The point is, the amount of energy it takes to generate hydrogen, and transport the hydrogen, and the size of the ‘gas tank’ you could have would all be limiting factors. Since the most efficient way of creating hydrogen is using natural gas and cracking it up using chemical reactions to break the bonds to create hydrogen (using electrolysis is highly inefficient), the entire process was actually minimally more carbon intensive than gasoline.

    Secondly, fuel cells are many orders of magnitude more expensive than gasoline. He listed a bunch of ways you could power a car. Everything from gas to diesel to hybrid to ethanol to electric to fuel cell. While gas was by far the cheapest, most others were nearby. Meanwhile fuel cells were MANY orders of magnitude away from being cost efficient.

    The main point he was trying to illustrate is that even if there are many efficiencies gained via supply chain or using economies of scale, this will NEVER make up for the many, many magnitudes of ineffiency that fuel cells in transportation have compared to gasoline. His point was that without a COMPLETELY new way of approaching fuel cells, today’s fuel cells will simply not be economical.

    Even with all the benefits of running a hydrogen engine, it’s surprizing that overall thanks to supply chain and the creation of hydrogen, it is still basically just as polluting as gasoline as a whole. Meanwhile, because of the massive cost on the scale of many magnitudes (over 1000x) fuel cells simply are nothing more than a pipe dream at the moment for transportation uses.


  9. While I do not fully support the use of hydrogen-fuelled buses as outlined here I would like to clarify two points brought up here by other people.

    The concern about hydrogen-fuelled buses in the winter can be addressed in Iceland where a sizeable fleet of these vehicles is being tested. The CBC aired a documentary on the progression of hydrogen as a new vehicle fuel source about a year ago. The buses seem to be operating fine given the weather conditions found in that country.

    The second concern is about wind turbines killing birds. This is only the case when they are poorly located and positioned. In most cases the local bird population becomes accustomed to the turbine and learn to avoid them. It is for this reason that they should not be placed along migratory routes. In the time that Toronto’s had its wind turbine at the Ex I think I’ve seen more reports of bird deaths from office towers than from the turbine.


  10. Iceland is fortunate to have a small population and practically unlimited geothermal energy sources – as well as large untapped hydroelectric potential.

    This having been said – although there aren’t many HFC buses in services – there are more of these that there are low-floor light-rail vehicles that can handle 36′ turning radii.

    If we’re looking for the technology that will be on the favourable side of the cost curve, there’s very little doubt that it will be hybrid powered buses. These are beginning to be manufactured in large numbers. I envisage that the cost of hybrid over the cost of standard diesel will drop markedly over the next decade. Fuel efficiency of hybrids will increase as well.

    In terms of resources used in the lifecycle of rubber-tired vehciles vs. steel-whel based vehicles, it is NOT necessarily true that a longer lasting vehicle uses fewer resources than a shorter lasting one.

    Firstly, buses are mass-produced. This means there are better engineered energy efficiencies in all production steps (raw materials, sub-assemblies, final assembly) than for the more specialized rail vehciles.

    2nd – the main reason more specialized equipment ‘lasts’ longer is that their replacement costs are higher in proportion to maintenance costs. Although the actual frame of a rail vehcile will last longer, many of its components will be replaced many times over during its lifespan. As with the initial manufacture, the vehicle components for rail vehciles are likely to have a higher energy content per unit than the relatively mass produced replacement components for buses.

    Whether or not the manufacturing efficiencies outweigh the material costs over the life cycle would take quite a bit of analysis.


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