Highway of Dreams


There’s no mistaking the Vancouver headquarters of B.C.’s Hydrogen Highway for anything but a government office. The angular grey building, nestled in a remote corner of the UBC campus, is dominated by National Research Council Canada signage. Decorating the entrance are logos attesting to the multiple public agencies and programs housed inside – Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Gateway, Insti­tute for Fuel Cell Innovation, the Vancouver Fuel Cell Vehicle Program – while the lobby is festooned with full-colour brochures (in both official languages, of course). We haven’t heard much about the much-touted highway since May 2007, when Premier Gordon Campbell and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger stood shoulder to shoulder to pledge support for a string of hydrogen fuelling stations stretching from Whistler down to the Mexican border. It seems to have dropped off the radar since that photogenic announcement, and I wonder about the highway’s B.C. leg, and how soon we can expect to be tootling from Vancouver to Whistler in fuel cell cars.
I’m met in the lobby by Gary Schubak, who informs me that he is the Hydrogen Highway. Sure enough, his business card reads “Manager, Hydrogen Highway,” and it turns out he’s the sole employee of a program by that name, funded by Natural Resources Canada. Schubak ushers me into his office, and when I ask him for an update on the highway, it soon becomes clear that, as with many government programs, things aren’t quite what they seem. “The Hydrogen Highway is really about a brand,” Schubak explains, “a way to communicate.” As he describes forklifts and stationary power generators, it dawns on me that the “highway” – at least, as far as B.C. is concerned

– has somehow morphed into a highway only in the metaphorical sense: a gateway to a future in which hydrogen figures prominently in our daily energy needs. As for when this change happened, Schubak can’t say, offering only the opaque explanation that “as the industry shifts, we have to shift with it.” When it was conceived in 2004, B.C.’s Hydrogen Highway was seen as an actual road with “passenger vehicles and the stations required to support them,” according to Schubak. The idea began when the National Research Council, BC Hydro and Methanex Corp. got together to propose a string of hydrogen fuelling stations from the U.S. border to Whistler in time for the 2010 Winter Olympics. The triumvirate took out a trademark on the phrase Hydrogen Highway and would later hand the trademark over to Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Canada, a non-profit industry association. The project has since expanded to include an impossibly complex roster of public and private players. Their idea was that the string of fuelling stations would serve as a showcase proving the technology’s viability to the public, while at the same time convincing automakers that local drivers were ready to test drive fleets of prototype fuel cell cars. The success in implementing that vision has been far more modest. Four years later, Metro Vancouver and Victoria are now home to a combined fleet of five prototype fuel cell cars supplied by Ford Motor Co., with five hydrogen fuelling stations in the region and a sixth, in Whistler, under construction. The most ambitious segment of the highway is a planned fleet of 20 fuel cell transit buses in Whistler, the first of which is currently being tested in Victoria. When I ask Schubak when we can expect to see Joe Public driving the Sea-to-Sky in a fuel cell car, however, he demurs. “The auto industry hasn’t commercialized in the timetable we’ve been hoping for,” he says, reminding me that Ballard Power Systems Inc. first promised we’d see commercial production of a fuel cell car by 2003, then again by 2007. Still, he hazards a guess: “I expect to see a commercial automotive application by 2015,” he says, before pausing. “Or later.” Any attempt to get a clear picture of the hydrogen highway is also complicated by politicians who use the term in its generic sense – without seeking approval from Natural Resources Canada to use the trademarked upper-case “Hydrogen Highway.” It turns out there are in fact three hydrogen highways: the one originally envisioned between Vancouver and Whistler, another one in California initiated by Schwarzenegger and a mega-highway connecting the two (the highway announced, with much fanfare, by Schwarzenegger and Campbell in 2007). I’m most curious about the road right here in B.C. But to understand what’s happening (or not happening) here, you first have to understand what’s going on in California, where that state’s hydrogen highway got off to a much faster start than ours, reaching a critical mass of 24 fuelling stations and 93 fuel cell vehicles within its first year. Schwarzenegger made the California Hydrogen Highway his personal project by issuing an executive order demanding a blueprint for a hydrogen fuelling infrastructure from transportation planners. The May 2005 California Hydrogen Blueprint Plan calls for 50 to 100 hydrogen fuelling stations by 2010 and projects a fleet of 2,000 hydrogen vehicles. [pagebreak] The project got off to an impressive start: the 2006 year-end report on the state’s Hydrogen Highway Network program counted 24 fuelling stations in operation, with an additional 13 planned.However, the infrastructure project stalled there: only five additional fuelling stations have been built since. That cluster of 29 stations, however, has been sufficient to encourage automakers to supply prototype cars: General Motors Corp. has delivered approximately 60 Chevrolet Equinox fuel cell cars to select drivers for a six-month test drive at no cost, and Honda Motor Co. Ltd. has pledged to deliver 200 Honda FCX Clarity fuel cell cars to California over the next three years, at a lease rate of $600 a month, which includes fuel and maintenance. (Since the cars cost over $100,000 apiece to produce, the automakers chalk these test drives up to R&D and marketing.) There’s little doubt, in California at least, that the government funding tap has been shut off, and it’s now up to private industry to carry the ball. In his January 2008 annual “state of the state” address, Schwarzenegger blamed economic hard times for an overall slowdown in government infrastructure programs. Without referring specifically to the California Hydrogen Highway, he noted that over the next 20 years California needs $500 billion of infrastructure upgrades. “There isn’t enough money in the public sector; we all know that,” he said. He called for the private sector to step up to the plate and pointed to B.C. as the shining example: “In British Columbia, public-private partnerships are common for building highways, bridges, rapid transit, water treatment and so on,” he said. “And everyone is happy. The political leaders are happy, business is happy, the public is happy, the economy is happy, the future is happy.” We may be happier here in B.C., but it isn’t because of public-private partnerships in our hydrogen highway. The private sector has contributed to a fledgling infrastructure, but the two cornerstone projects – an $18-million hydrogen generation and distribution centre in North Vancouver and the $89-million bus fleet and fuelling station in Whistler – are funded almost entirely by government. The private sector has chipped in significantly for the remaining fuelling stations, but these contributions are not public-private partnerships in the typical sense of private-sector partners shouldering the financial risk in return for the potential reward of earning a profit. These projects are not public utilities such as roads and bridges, but demonstration projects meant to both test new technology and publicize the technology’s potential. Key to this “highway” is undoubtedly Whistler: without it, the hydrogen-fuelling infrastructure is merely a random cluster of sites with no end point. The 2010 Olympics were the carrot that spurred government and Crown agencies to pick up the hefty $90-million price tag for the Whistler component, with the Government of Canada kicking in $45 million, the Province of B.C. $11 million, BC Transit $33 million and Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Canada $1 million. Also critical, and the second-biggest link in the region’s hydrogen infrastructure, is the $18-million Integrated Waste Hydrogen Utilization Project in North Vancouver. Funded primarily by federal government agencies and implemented by private-sector partner Sacré-Davey Innovations Inc., this project captures and processes waste hydrogen from two nearby pulp and paper plants, which is then used in an on-site fuelling station (and transported to sites around the region, including the BC Transit site in Langford, near Victoria). As for the rest of B.C.’s hydrogen fuelling stations – well, it isn’t so much a planned highway as a patchwork of pilot projects that have popped up wherever the funding and expertise happen to be located. The Victoria and Port Coquitlam stations, for example, are situated on pre-existing TransLink properties because fuelling transit buses is their primary purpose. (A third bus depot and fuelling station, the Whistler project, will be situated on land owned by BC Hydro.) Surrey happens to be the site of one station because that’s where BC Hydro’s Powertech Labs Inc. is situated. And the Vancouver station happens to be on the UBC campus because that’s the site of the regional office of National Research Council Canada. If a driver were to actually follow this “highway,” the route would zigzag from Victoria to Surrey to Port Coquitlam to the farthest reaches of the UBC campus to North Vancouver and on to Whistler. Perhaps this motley assortment of stations will be sufficient to lure automakers to supply a fleet of fuel cell vehicles. Perhaps the price tag of fuel cell cars will come down from the current million-dollar range. And perhaps, even as a severe economic downturn grips the world, federal and provincial governments will continue to fund demonstration projects until the private sector is ready to take the reins. But for now, the prospect of an actual highway – which my dictionary defines as “a main road, especially one between towns or cities” – seems little more than a mirage, an unrealized vision receding to an ever more distant future. Connecting the Dots The six fuelling stops along B.C.’s hydrogen highway Victoria A hydrogen fuelling station at BC Transit’s Langford station (using hydrogen transported from the North Vancouver hydrogen-recovery plant), plus a mobile fuelling station for testing of one of the 20 fuel cell buses to be integrated into the Whistler transit fleet. Project cost: $1 million Government funding: $480,000 Private partner: BOC Gases, a subsidiary of the Linde Group Surrey A fuelling station at BC Hydro’s Powertech Labs. Hydrogen produced on site through electrolysis. Project cost: $530,000 Government funding: $265,000 Partner: BC Hydro Port Coquitlam A TransLink fuelling centre serving a fleet of four prototype buses modified to run on hydrogen and compressed natural gas. Hydrogen is transported from the North Vancouver hydrogen-recovery plant. Project cost: N/A (part of the $18-million Integrated Waste Hydrogen Utilization Project; see North Vancouver, right) Partners: Sacré-Davey Innovations Inc., Westport Innovations Inc., TransLink Vancouver A fuelling station at the National Research Council regional offices on the UBC campus. Compressed hydrogen is trucked from Quebec and stored on site. Project cost: $2.8 million Government funding: $1.5 million (Natural Resources Canada) Lead private partner: Jointly funded and built by BOC Gases, a division of theLinde Group North Vancouver Home of the Integrated Waste Hydrogen Utilization Project. Waste hydrogen from the pulp and paper industry is captured and processed here, to be used at an on-site fuelling station and at points throughout the Lower Mainland. Project cost: $18.3 million Government funding: $12.2 million Lead private partner: Sacré-Davey Innovations Inc. Whistler A planned BC Transit fuelling station and fleet of 20 public transit buses that will be housed on Whistler’s BC Hydro property. Hydrogen will be trucked in from Quebec. Project cost: $89 million Funding: Province of B.C., $11 million; Government of Canada, $45 million; BC Transit, $33 million; Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Canada, $1 million