Cleantech Market Intelligence
No Hydrogen Please, We’re British
Every Olympics has its notable no-shows. For the 2012 London Olympics, this group includes Rafael Nadal, Brittney Griner, and five large red fuel cell buses. Transport for London (TfL) has been running the buses on a route near the Olympic Park since the end of 2010, and has three more set to join the fleet this year. There had been some expectation that running the buses in and around the Olympics would provide a showcase for the benefits of fuel cell technology. Unfortunately, the buses have been grounded for the Olympics due to “security concerns.” According to press reports, the Olympic Delivery Authority put the kibosh on hydrogen deliveries to the buses’ fueling station, which is in an area under tight security restrictions for the Olympics. What’s not noted in the press accounts is that there are also restrictions on conventional liquid fuel deliveries in the Olympic perimeter. This is all part of the extremely stringent controls put in place to secure a major global event in a city that has been hit by terror attacks in the past.
The good news is, the Olympic authorities approved the use of the fuel cell buses themselves. But stopping fuel deliveries to the hydrogen station effectively shut down the buses, as the closest alternative hydrogen station is some distance away from the buses’ route. Worse, a mistaken impression has been created that the hydrogen fuel might be dangerous.
The fleet will be back in service in September, when it can resume the important work of testing out the buses in real world operations. Reports are that the buses have suffered down time previously due not to the fuel cells but to maintenance and spare parts issues. This mirrors some problems with an early fleet of fuel cell buses at AC Transit; these had reliability problems due to the ZEBRA batteries, not the fuel cells. But these are the kinds of issues that get worked out with new technologies in real world service.
Meanwhile, a local official has already taken the opportunity to complain about the fuel cell buses and instead call for adopting a “here-and-now” technology: all-electric buses. This response is symptomatic of a larger problem. Public officials, and the public, keep falling in love with the “perfect” green technology, setting themselves up for disappointment when their technology love turns out to be less than perfect. Both fuel cell and battery buses need more real world deployments to allow manufacturers to refine the technology further for the demanding transit market and to drive down costs. As I will discuss in my upcoming report on the market for electric drive buses, price is still the biggest obstacle for battery electric, fuel cell and even hybrid buses, which have captured a large share of the U.S. market and seen major growth in the past two years in the U.K., thanks to stimulus funding. But transit agencies are going to be reluctant to pay significantly higher prices for buses as they face tighter budgets and stimulus funding ends. This, not terrorists out to pilfer hydrogen, is the real challenge for fuel cell buses.