Winnipeg Transit New Flyer Xcelsior Electric Bus. Photo Winnipeg Transit
Winnipeg Transit New Flyer Xcelsior Electric Bus. Photo: Winnipeg Transit

Canadian transit leaders weigh in on the path to electrification, the disruptions of COVID, and hydrogen fuel cell technology

Call it the thick edge of the wedge — as more Canadian municipalities declare climate emergencies and commit to hard targets on carbon emissions, they look first to transit services for big gains. As such, it falls to their transit agencies to navigate the transition, drafting plans and procuring new equipment while managing significant up-front costs.

This challenges of this transition were put under the microscope on day two of the 2nd Canadian Low-Carbon Smart Mobility Technology Conference, which was hosted digitally by CUTRIC this week.

First, leaders from four Canadian public transit agencies — Suzanne Connor, director of transit at Burlington Transit, Martin Lapointe, chief of electrification and embedded system projects at the Réseau de Transport de la Capitale (RTC), Erin Cooke of Winnipeg Transit, and Kelly Paleczny, general manager of the London Transit Commission — came together on a panel entitled Future Zero! Canadian Transit Systems Going Electric.

They shared insights both on immediate obstacles as well as long-term hurdles.

Progress interrupted

A recurring theme of the discussion was the impact that social distancing required by COVID-19 has had on fleet electrification efforts.    

Mandated social distancing and economic shutdowns have in many cases drastically reduced the number of passengers utilizing public transit, thereby significantly stunting transit income. According to the panelists, until it becomes more clear when those numbers will return to typical levels, funding of new transit projects may remain in jeopardy.

However, the early signs are encouraging: Kelly Paleczny reported that transit ridership in London jumped significantly following the area’s stage 1 reopening in mid-May, and stage 2 reopening this past week.

The panelists also were hopeful that government COVID-19 recovery stimulus packages would include funding for projects that lower public transit emissions.

“I would anticipate that stimulus funding that would be available might be related to greening of the economy,” said Paleczny.

Suzanne Connor noted that while there will be work required to ensure transit electrification stays on track in the near future, she remains “hopeful that we’ll see our way through to the other side.”

Hydrogen power

A keynote address given Thursday afternoon by Rob Campbell, chief commercial officer at Ballard Power Systems — a world leader with more than 760 Ballard-powered fuel cell electric buses now deployed globally — also focused on transit.

Campbell made the case that hydrogen fuel cell technology presents the lowest-cost solution for zero emission transit needs.  

According to a report co-produced by Ballard and Deloitte in January of this year, fuel cell buses will become cheaper to run than diesel within the next decade. Campbell also pointed to the fact that hydrogen fuel becomes progressively cheaper as the number of vehicles being powered grows, making them an attractive choice for public transit fleets.

“Everything’s on the table. Let’s identify what will work best”

Kelly Paleczny, General Manager, London Transit Commission

Another upside cited by Campbell is their relatively consistent performance; fuel cell buses have been demonstrated to operate in varied climates with less impact on range than battery electric buses.

“The solution is proven, it’s affordable, and it’s sustainable,” said Campbell. “We need to come together and make it simple for the customers.”

Options remain open

Several of the Future Zero panelists noted that hydrogen fuel cell technology remains on the table in their efforts to convert to zero-emission transport.

“Rather than focusing only on one technology as we move forward, everything’s on the table, and let’s identify what will work best,” Paleczny said of London Transit Commission’s approach to differing modes of zero-emission transit.

Martin Lapointe noted that the RTC, Québec City’s transit agency, was “evaluating all the options”, although hydrogen fuel is “not the primary option that we’re looking for, because of all the infrastructure necessary to operate it.”

Indeed, to date, most Canadian cities making the transition have opted for battery electric or hybrid buses, including Guelph, Toronto, Montreal, Victoria and Vancouver.

Lessons being learned

Each panelist agreed that crucial to pursuing zero-emission public transit was maintaining awareness of the challenges ahead, and learning from others who have electrified their fleets.

Lapointe pointed out that it is crucial to consider not only the cost and management of the buses, but adapting hardware, personnel and infrastructure to the change over many years.

Erin Cooke said that those considering local pilot projects should “begin with the end in mind.”

As Paleczny puts it, transit electrification is an opportunity for municipalities “to demonstrate to the community that we want to play a role in greening the community and doing everything we can to get involved with that.”

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