Mississauga councillors consider hydrogen bus pilot; diesel jeopardizing City’s climate targets
In June 2019, Mississauga declared a climate emergency. It was largely a symbolic gesture that has become a hallmark of local governments, enthusiastically endorsed by municipalities across the country that trumpet their progressive move.
Many, including Brampton and the Region of Peel, turn around and endorse resolutions that will do more damage to the environment, such as the support each of those two governments displayed for the GTA West Highway.
But in Mississauga, the stakes are different. The city wants to grow beyond its sprawling, suburban roots, and creating the type of urban space young, educated professionals seek, is the new ethos of Canada’s sixth largest city.
This past December, councillors ratified a climate change plan worth almost half a billion dollars. In it, the City committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent of its 1990s' levels by 2050.
The current MiWay diesel fleet is a remnant of the past, causing massive pollution in the city's airshed
To those around the council table, approving green initiatives doesn’t come with much political risk – the ultimate deadline is barely visible on the horizon. And thirty years is more than seven terms of council.
But a startling admission from City staff last week laid bare the consequences of inaction on climate policy at the local level. Politicians — and the budgets they pass — need to start taking immediate action.
According to MiWay boss Geoff Marinoff, roughly 70 percent of the City’s emissions are caused by its bus fleet. With most municipal buses limited to a lifespan of about 12 years, purchasing moves need to happen now if the carbon guzzling dinosaurs are to be rendered extinct.
Over a 12-year lifespan, staff say a single zero-emission bus would be the equivalent of taking 308 cars off the road.
“In order to meet the City’s GHG [greenhouse gas] target, MiWay cannot purchase any conventional diesel buses moving forward, and will be required to purchase hybrid-electric and electric buses with little to no emissions,” the report states.
Councillors who spent 2019 inviting young environmental activists to City Hall and attending climate rallies in Celebration Square are facing their first real test.
Marinoff’s stark comments were part of a report aimed at restarting a stalled hydrogen bus pilot in the city. The previously endorsed project was jeopardized by the Doug Ford government’s decision to scrap environmental subsidies, stripping the pilot of $4 million in funding and cancelling legislation propelling it forward.
The original project was built on the Liberal government’s cap-in-trade program, a system mandating companies to purchase additional carbon allowances if they exceeded specific emissions, something critics argued stifled job creation. To avoid paying penalties, CRH, a multinational cement company with a large operation in Mississauga, partnered with MiWay to produce hydrogen from its emissions and use it to fuel buses.
When the Province ended the cap-in-trade program, shortly after the PCs won a majority government in 2018, it was no longer necessary for CRH to partner with MiWay and the plan was put on the backburner.
Now, a federal emphasis on zero-emissions transit and innovative work by Canadian Urban Transit Research & Innovation Consortium (CUTRIC), a research non-profit, has presented a chance for Mississauga to lead the way. On Wednesday, councillors approved $45,750 to cover 25 percent of a feasibility study run by CUTRIC to determine what it would take to transition the City’s bus fleet to environmentally friendly hydrogen power.
MiWay boss Geoff Marinoff wants to pull Mississauga into the future and he thinks a hydrogen-powered bus fleet is the way to do it
Despite its benefits and alignment with the already endorsed climate target, the plan didn’t sail through the City’s General Committee completely unopposed. Ward 2 Councillor Karen Ras, a Conservative who often raises cost issues, questioned the budget impact of hydrogen buses, suggesting alternatives.
“There are currently no dedicated hydrogen fuel cell electric bus pilots in Canada,” she said. “I’m just wondering — given our current situation — would we not maybe pivot to take a look at the electric bus or the hybrids [to] try to achieve our climate change goals?”
“I’m really concerned this might be on the bleeding edge of technology,” she added, before eventually joining her colleagues in approving the first phase of a pilot “with reservations”.
Ras flagged the cost of hydrogen buses, which is significantly higher than the price of conventional diesel fleets. Staff hope their federal and provincial counterparts will jump in to make up the difference. During the second (still unapproved) phase of the pilot, MiWay plans to maintain its transit budget at its current level based on using diesel and traditional vehicles, relying on Ottawa and Queen’s Park to make up any difference.
Marinoff told The Pointer hydrogen buses come in at $1.1 million more than a conventional diesel bus, with other costs on top of that, for a total of roughly $1.7 million per bus. The plan is for the City to cover its current $600,000 unit cost and appeal to other levels of government to cough up the rest.
Staff have completed high-level costing, suggesting 10 buses would require an $11 million top-up from other levels of government, along with an extra $7 million for fuel.
Any potential federal funding partnership and the procurement of hydrogen vehicles would be part of the second phase of the pilot, which council has not yet discussed. The study is expected to take between four and five months; MiWay will be back with more metrics and the project could launch as early as March 2021.
Councillors have only approved a feasibility study for the project which will map out if the plan and Mississauga are the right fit.
In contrast to the comments by Ras, some council members were extremely enthusiastic about the proposal. Ward 5 Councillor Carolyn Parrish lauded the work done by MiWay staff, pointing to the irony of offering any opposition to the plan after various climate declarations.
“We’ve rolled out all these climate programs that we’re going to be going green, doing all this stuff, and the first time you bring us something like this, you get questioned,” she said. “This is what we should be doing.”
Mississauga has been consistent in its interest in hydrogen buses for quite some time. Marinoff has spoken passionately about the advantages it offers over battery powered electric buses. The City’s transit director has listed a 10-minute refill time (compared to five minutes for diesel or hours for batteries), the weight of the fuel and the ability to avoid ungainly on-street electric chargers as just some advantages of the technology.
“Hydrogen is the lightest element on earth,” he said to The Pointer, extolling the weight and efficiency advantages of the carbon fiber tanks it would be stored in.
Hydrogen is also rooted in Mississauga’s burgeoning research sector. Hydrogenics, a company acquired in 2019 by global engine manufacturer Cummins, is based in the city and produces hydrogen transit technology used around the world.
“There are quite a number of pilots going on in Europe, quite a number of pilots going on in the United States and the fuel cells they use are all Canadian, [made by] either Ballard or Cummins,” Marinoff explained to councillors. “We have lots of Canadian technology being used in Asia, Europe and America, but not being used at home.”
This is an idea that Dr. Josipa Petrunic, executive director and CEO of CUTRIC, thinks is key to Canada’s plans for the environment, innovation and even its place on the world stage. “China made a conscious choice half-a-decade ago to lead in the electric transit world, they made a conscious choice to invest in companies in China that build buses and shuttles and batteries and charging systems. Right now 99 percent of electric buses out there are made and deployed in China,” she explained at a February funding announcement for her organization.
Hydrogen-powered buses are already being used around the world
Wednesday saw Mississauga take its first step toward taking a leadership role on that front, which could help shift its climate stance from symbolic to meaningful.
The real challenge will come in just a few months when higher costs and significant lobbying efforts may be necessary to move forward with a game-changing strategy, another signal that Mississauga is serious about becoming a modern urban destination.
“Do I think it’s going to work?,” Marinoff rhetorically asked The Pointer. “I did a site visit to SARTA [an Ohio regional transit agency] … they've been running hydrogen buses for several years — there’s no question it’s going to work, it’s just the economics.”
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