The players behind a pilot of hydrogen buses in Edmonton and Strathcona County have used sandbags to replicate passengers and consulted with experts to expose and resolve any future challenges that the low-carbon technology has.
Edmonton Transit Service and Strathcona County Transit are collaborating on the 42-month pilot program, which includes one hydrogen fuel-cell bus for each fleet. The buses entered fare service on Oct. 25 and both municipalities have already observed issues.
"We expected to find that this wasn't going to go perfectly right from the get-go," Derek Hanson, director of transit fleet maintenance for the City of Edmonton, told Taproot. "Being in Edmonton and having that cold snap in October was actually quite beneficial to us because we did get some learnings from that."
Those learnings have included how outages at the refuelling service at a Suncor (a pilot partner) facility in Sherwood Park can affect the service. On one occasion, four out of 60 hydrogen valves experienced "minor" leaks due to freezing.
Neither Edmonton nor Strathcona County own a hydrogen refuelling station, yet, but Edmonton's request for proposals from April for one is currently under review, Hanson said. "We're agnostic in terms of how it gets to us," Hanson said, noting the city is seeking a vendor that will take care of production, delivery, ownership, and maintenance. "We just want to use the fuel."
Other learnings have been about safety, such as finding a knick in the casing for a high-voltage wire. "There was no impact to the actual wiring on the bus, but we wanted to take extra precaution and care around that, and do a full investigation," Hanson said.
At this stage in the hydrogen game, caution is crucial. Hanson said that though the pilot has gleaned information about hydrogen safety from different regulatory bodies, there's nothing definitive in Canada. "Those standards do not yet exist, from a (Canadian Standards Association) perspective on the hydrogen side," Hanson said. "But they're in development, and a number of us are actually on a CSA advisory panel that are informing those codes and standards. I expect those to be in place in the very near future, if not in 2024."
Representatives from Edmonton and Strathcona County Transit said that aside from expected teething challenges, the pilot buses are working well. Testing data indicate they can handle the cold and have a similar range to diesel buses (and perhaps better than the troubled electric bus fleet in Edmonton).
"When we were doing testing we shadowed, or ghosted, a diesel bus in service to get some range, and we had sandbags in (the hydrogen bus) to mimic passenger loads," Wade Coombs, director of transit for Strathcona County, said. "All the data to date has been showing that it is very comparable to a diesel bus in the distance you can drive in the day."
Coombs noted Edmonton was in the news because of challenges with its electric buses, specifically with range and cold weather abilities. "Hydrogen, I think, addresses that, and is the closest we're ever going to get to a one-to-one comparison to diesel."
What makes a hydrogen bus tick, exactly?
The pilot's hydrogen buses are manufactured by New Flyer, which supplies the majority of the Edmonton Transit Service's bus fleet, Hanson said.
In a follow-up email, Hanson explained that the buses have an electric powertrain, and the fuel cells convert the chemical energy of hydrogen into electrical energy, which then provides the powertrain with electricity to move the bus. Hydrogen is stored in compressed tanks on the bus.
Hydrogen fuel-cell buses produce no exhaust-pipe emissions and are classed as zero-emission capable.
Still, one challenge for hydrogen fuel is cost, as exemplified in California. A U.S. report from 2022 ranks hydrogen as $10 per gallon more expensive than gasoline, while another from the same period lists the Loop S1200 fuel cell, of Germany, at price par for diesel fuel in Europe.
Both Hanson and Coombs said diesel prices are increasing while hydrogen prices may fall.
"We also know that the carbon tax on diesel is going up and up every year," Coombs said. "If we can build the market and get more people using hydrogen by 2030, you could see where the price is equivalent."
Both see natural links with the Edmonton Region Hydrogen HUB, a multi-industry network dedicated to finding a future for the fuel.
"One of the benefits of living in Edmonton region is we've been producing hydrogen for many years," Hanson said. "We've just not looked at it as an alternate fuel source for fleets in the way that we are right now. We're trying to tie fleet requirements, or fleet-conversion plans, and the investment that goes into that, with the resilience plan and economic investment in the Edmonton region. And so we feel that Edmonton, of all places, in a good position from a supply-and-demand perspective to support projects like ours."
Coombs added: "It makes it easier for us than maybe some of the other municipal transit systems across Canada."
Both buses will leave the region when the pilot ends. One will head to Calgary while the other will go to Roam Transit and serve the communities of Banff and Canmore.
Strathcona County and Edmonton will collaborate on the project until at least January 2025, and likely through the reporting process to follow. The cooperation continues despite a breakdown in regional transit cooperation with the Edmonton Metropolitan Region Transit Commission at the start of the year, and Strathcona County voting to withdraw from Edmonton Global on Nov. 30.
The pilot originally was slated to run from June 2021 to June 2024 run but has been extended to January 2025. It is funded by $4.6 million from Emissions Reduction Alberta, and part of those funds support a study at the University of Alberta to measure the buses' success. It is led by associate professor Dr. Mahdi Shahbakhti, the director of the Energy Mechatronics Laboratory.
A summary of learnings from the pilot project will be communicated to council and shared publicly, Hanson said via email.
Correction: This file has been updated to correct the title of Derek Hanson.