3 May 2007 - 08:40
  • News Code: 103758

As road rallies go, it was a modest affair, featuring only six vehicles, including two Ford Focus cars and a pickup truck.

But measured by the hopes they carry, the fuelcell-powered vehicles were hauling heavy loads. As the kickoff event for the Hydrogen & Fuel Cells 2007 conference being held this week in Vancouver, April 28 road rally was in keeping with the event’s focus on real-world, commercial solutions--something that has proved maddeningly elusive for the sector.

“Back in 2004, people were getting really tired of the hype around hydrogen and fuelcells,“ says Alison Setton, manager for British Columbia’s Hydrogen Highway program.

“So when we started the Hydrogen Highway, I wanted to be very careful that we would only publicize projects that you could see and feel and touch. Because it was hard even for me to distinguish plans from what was actually built.“

The rally, featuring cars from several different manufacturers, followed a Vancouver to Whistler route and included a stop at a mobile fuelling station meant to represent the Hydrogen Highway in action.

Launched in 2004, the Hydrogen Highway is an umbrella network for industry, government and other players involved in Canada’s fuel cell sector. It also has a bricks-and-mortar aspect, most often thought of as a string of hydrogen fuelling stations in BC that would eventually hook up with similar stretches on the West Coast of the US, a concept that’s become tied in to the sustainability goals of the 2010 Olympic Games.

For now, however, the physical components of the Hydrogen Highway consist of demonstration projects, ranging from small applications--such as fuelcell-powered bike lights developed by North Vancouver-based Angstrom Power Inc.--to a North Vancouver project that recovers and processes hydrogen from a chemical plant to use as fuel.

The transportation aspect of the highway is gearing up, though, with BC Transit’s planned purchase of 20 fuelcell-powered buses that will become part of the Whistler bus fleet. The buses are expected to be delivered beginning in the summer of next year.

“We’ve put out a tender for 20 buses and will be finalizing the contractual details in the near future,“ says BC Transit vice-president Ron Harmer.

While fuelcell-powered vehicles were an early target for Canada’s fuelcell industry, including Vancouver-based Ballard Power Systems Inc., some of the focus in recent years has shifted to other, potentially easier-to-crack markets, such as backup power systems and fuelcell-powered forklifts. Analysts remain skeptical of the commercial prospects.

It is “absolutely critical“ that fuel cell and hydrogen technology reach commercial success, says John Tak, president of Hydrogen & Fuel Cells Canada, adding that Ballard and the Canadian sector in general have been hampered by a lack of government funding in comparison to other sectors such as biotechnology.

“Japan and the European Union are each putting $300-million [US] a year into fuelcell development,“ he adds.

Some of the programs kicked off by that money are likely based on Canadian-designed technology.

“At present, Canadian technology is being deployed largely outside Canada in bus demonstration projects funded by competing governments,“ says a BC Transit study on fuel cell buses, citing projects in Europe, Australia, the US, China and Brazil. Having led advances in fuelcell bus technology, the report adds, Canada “now faces the prospect of losing commercialization benefits to other jurisdictions.“

PIN/ GLOBEINVESTOR.COM

News Code 103758

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