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Fuel Cell Electric Buses: The Proven Solution for Canada’s Climate and Economy

6 minute read
May. 28, 2020
Article by Nicolas Pocard

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly all aspects of our day-to-day lives, and many industries are struggling to stay afloat amidst the economic crisis. 

Public transit is an area that now needs urgent support from federal and provincial governments in order to sustain operations in the short term. 

And in the longer term, our cities need public transportation—and it must be zero-emission in order for Canada to: 

  • become carbon neutral by 2050.
  • reduce traffic, allowing us to continue to enjoy air quality we have seen during the past two months.

So what does this mean for transit authorities? What does it mean for Canada?

There are choices to make. We have the opportunity to invest in public transit while directly addressing climate change with a “Made-in-Canada” solution that offers:

  • thousands of jobs for Canadians at a time when the economy needs them
  • zero-emission buses that perform best in Canada’s harsh winters 
  • Canadian leadership in a zero-emission vehicle technology 

Download our full report on how fuel cell electric buses can help boost  Canada's economy while providing no-compromise transit service >>5,000 Zero-Emission Buses Over the Next Five Years

The choices must be made soon: the federal government (working with the provinces and territories) should now commit to funding the zero-emissions bus initiative to support school boards and municipalities in purchasing 5,000 zero-emission buses over the next five years. 

At Ballard, we believe that at least 20% of those 5,000 buses should have fuel cell electric powertrains. Here’s why. 

fuel-cell-buses-canadaNew Flyer Xcelsior CHARGE H2™ electric bus

Four Reasons Why Fuel Cell Electric Buses are Canada’s Best Choice

1. Canada receives more economic value from fuel cell electric buses

Fuel cell electric buses (FCEBs) are far more valuable to the Canadian economy than battery electric buses (BEBs). A significant percentage of every dollar spent on developing and operating FCEBs  will support Canadian companies and Canadian jobs.

  • Fuel cell technology and manufacturing is Canadian: fuel cells are made in Canada, by Ballard and other manufacturers. 
  • Electric buses are made in Canada: a key manufacturer of fuel cell electric buses is Winnipeg, Manitoba’s New Flyer.
  • Electric drivetrain components are manufactured in Canada: Quebec is home to several manufacturers of electric drivetrain value chain. 
  • The hydrogen supply chain is here: Canada is home to a significant concentration of companies that provide equipment for  hydrogen production, delivery, dispensing including refueling stations.

In contrast, far more of the value of a BEB is sent outside Canada. The large battery packs that are required for mass-transit electric buses account for approximately 26% of a BEB’s cost and most of the lithium ion cells are imported from Asia.

Finally, Canada now faces the challenge of rebuilding a post-COVID-19 economy. By choosing fuel cell technology for public transit, transit agencies and municipalities can support Canadian jobs in manufacturing and supply industries.


2. Fuel cell electric buses have superior performance in cold weather 

When transit planners look at replacing their diesel fleets, bus range and recharging/refueling time are critical considerations. At their best, battery buses have less range and lower hill-climbing performance than fuel cell electric buses

In Canada’s varied and harsh climates, performance degrades further. According to a Center for Transportation and the Environment study, the range of battery electric buses falls by 37.8% when temperature drops from the 10 to 15°C range to the zero to -5°C range. For fuel cell electric buses, the decrease is only 23.1%. 

In colder climates, battery electric bus charging time is dramatically slower: at -20°C, it takes twenty times longer to recharge an electric bus than to recharge it at +20°C.

In contrast, a fuel-cell electric bus refuel time is unaffected by temperature. 

green-energy-canadaSir Adam Beck Hydroelectric Generating Stations in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Image source: Flickr

3. Low carbon hydrogen is available in Canada 

Green hydrogen can be created from water using electrolysis, either at a central regional facility, or onsite at a transit depot. Electrolysis requires a reliable source of electricity, which Canada is abundant in. 

A high percentage of Canada’s electrical grid is generated by renewable and low-carbon sources, including:

  • Hydro power (BC, Ontario, and Quebec)
  • Wind (Maritimes)
  • Natural gas (Prairies) 

Low carbon hydrogen can also be generated from natural gas, which could be an opportunity for Canada’s struggling oil and gas sector. Jobs could be regained in the generation of blue hydrogen by using natural gas combined with carbon sequestration technologies. 

(Click graphic below to enlarge.)


4. Fuel cells are a sustainable solution for zero-emission vehicles 

Ballard is a leader in reducing the total lifecycle emissions of fuel cell electric powertrains. Compared to battery electric powertrains: 

  • our manufacturing generates 75% fewer GHG emissions (from cradle to gate).
  • our recycling and refurbishing processes are proven: every year we recycle and refurbish thousands of fuel cell stacks.
  • our refurbished fuel cell stacks use recycled materials and are returned to service for a new life cycle.

At a vehicle level, fuel cell electric vehicles are also cleaner than battery electric vehicles  and internal combustion engine vehicles from a lifetime emissions and environmental impact perspective. There’s even more room for improvement as low carbon hydrogen production and delivery matures.


Battery or fuel cell electric buses? Or both? 

At Ballard, we feel that fuel cell electric buses and battery buses are allies, not competitors as both technologies are needed to achieve 100% zero-emissions bus fleets. Both are viable, depending on the need and the application. And Canada—and the world—must migrate to zero-emission buses, and quickly.

To make the transition, transit authorities will need to embrace both technologies. Therefore, when it comes to tenders, we encourage a “technology neutral” approach that is based on desired results and not a specific technology. Equally, funding agencies should prioritize results, and not one technology over the other. 

Equal funding consideration should also apply to the infrastructure. Dollars invested in electric charging infrastructure should be matched by equal dollars invested in hydrogen infrastructure.

Too frequently, consideration focuses solely on vehicle purchase price. A more holistic view considers:

  • total cost of ownership of each vehicle. 
  • charging or refueling requirements, and the implications to routes, schedules and system-wide infrastructure.
  • depot modification requirements.

The time to consider the fuel cell option is now

The Canadian public is ready, even eager, for our economic recovery to be green with investments in clean energy and zero-emission transportation, in order to generate new jobs in our cleantech sector.

The transition to zero-emission vehicles for public transit is an opportunity to invest in a more sustainable future that features clean transit as part of the fabric of our cities. Now, with the strong support of the federal government, it’s time for zero-emission buses to be deployed at scale in Canada. 

Local governments and transit agencies have the opportunity to make a win-win decision: 

  • Canadian fuel cell electric bus technology delivers affordable zero-emissions transit with uncompromised performance and route flexibility. 
  • Supporting Canada’s new green economy will create jobs and increase the country’s supply chain security 

The choice is ours to make.


An Attractive Value Proposition for Zero-Emission Transit in Canada

Fuel cell electric buses will bring real economic value to Canada. Learn why they're the best solution for Canada's zero-emission transit. 

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