Fuel-Cell Experiment Misses the Bus

By Michelle Krebs February 28, 2008

By Bill Visnic

Some cost and durability figures for operating hydrogen fuel-cell powered buses have leaked out, and from them it appears the best thing that can be said is it’s a good thing it’s a demonstration program. Fuelcellbus240

To fulfill a California Air Resources Board requirement that operators of large bus fleets participate in a Zero-Emission Bus demonstration program, in 2005 the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority purchased three buses powered by early versions of fuel cells developed by Ballard Power Systems Inc. of Vancouver, Canada.

Green Car Journal reports a memo directed to the Santa Clara VTA’s board of directors indicated operating the buses has cost the Santa Clara VTA a staggering 32 times more than the overall running cost for comparable diesel-engine buses.

Cost per mile for to operate a diesel bus: $1.61. Cost per mile for the fuel-cell buses: $51.66.

The fuel-cell buses are not very dependable, and when they break down — which is quite often — they are shockingly expensive to fix, accounting for the largest factor in the exorbitant overall cost of operating the buses. The per-mile parts cost for the fuel-cell buses is $34.40, compared with 21 cents per mile for a diesel bus.

The fuel-cell buses, which have racked up about 75,000 miles, averaged about 1,100 miles between road calls, the measure of reliability for such fleets. The figure for diesel buses is roughly six times better, at 6,000 miles between road calls.

The memo noted the fuel-cell stacks for the buses are based on early technology, which is partially responsible for the extremely high parts costs. The buses traveled about 17,000 miles before the stacks required replacement.

The hydrogen fuel for the fuel-cell buses cost about five times that of the diesel buses, and the Santa Clara VTA leased its refilling facility from a supplier. The memo said the refueling experience showed about 50 percent of the hydrogen fuel escaped into the atmosphere while refueling — essentially doubling the cost of the fuel to more than 10 times the cost of fleet-purchased diesel.

Although demonstration programs are formed precisely for the purpose of fleshing out real-world issues such as these, these Santa Clara VTA’s cost figures doubtless will support naysayers of fuel-cell development for transportation uses.

Meanwhile, shareholders at Ballard — the developer and manufacturer of the fuel-cell stack for the buses and longtime supplier of fuel-cell technology to the automotive sector — approved in January the sale of the company’s entire automotive fuel-cell assets to longtime partners Daimler AG and Ford Motor Co.

Ballard said it would concentrate on fuel-cell applications for stationary commercial applications.

Photo: Zero-emission bus at hydrogen fueling facility.
Source: Santa Clara VTA Web site

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Christopher says: 1:02 AM, 02.29.08

So much for the idea that fuel cells will replace the internal-combustion engine in the near future. If fuel-cell costs are exorbitant even for city-bus fleets, it's a given that they will be entirely too much for ordinary consumers. The question is, does current and forthcoming environmental legislation reflect this reality? Many legislatures seem to think that by curtailing oil exploration and imposing draconian fuel-economy regulations on automakers, they can simply wish away the significant challenges that stand in the way of widespread fuel-cell use. Clearly, they cannot. Better, I say, to ease off or even cut out the draconian regulations, and let technology evolve in its own way in its own time.

Isaac says: 8:02 AM, 02.29.08

Of course legislation does not reflect reality. This is California. More seriously though, curtailing oil exploration (ie ANWR) is not half the problem that you think it might be. The REAL problem is that there have been no new oil refineries built in the last 30 years or so. Even if peak oil were little more than a theory, you still have to refine the crude.

I do agree that CAFE standards are another bad 'pie-in-the sky' government wish, and CA wants to have 40MPG fleets by 2020. So what is Sacramento going to do with all the OLD cars that do not measure up? CA already has among the highest gas prices in the USA. As for fuel cells not ready for prime time, that is no surprise given how brand new and experimental the technology is. The only way fuel cells become viable is if oil reaches at least $150-200 a barrel. (I hope that simply does not happen.)

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