Nearly 20 years ago, a little known hydrogen fuel-cell bus trial was run in Perth. The first large trial of this technology in Australia set the wheels into motion for zero-emissions public transport to become a reality. However, it was never taken up.
When Simon Whitehouse was first tasked by the Western Australian government to run a hydrogen fuel-cell bus trial in 2004, he had little idea of what he was getting himself into. So little, in fact, that he needed his high-school student kids to provide foundation information.
“I had never heard of a fuel cell,” Whitehouse told ABC. “When the WA government told me they were going to buy three fuel-cell buses to run on hydrogen and that they wanted me to design the trial, I had to ask my kids what a fuel-cell was.”
This fact-finding mission with his kids meant Whitehouse was soon caught up to speed on how hydrogen fuel-cell bus technology worked, allowing him to devise a plan to operate three Daimler hydrogen fuel cell buses in Perth and to gain information about how the same buses worked in other public transport networks around the world.
Whitehouse’s trial, which would come to be known as the Sustainable Transport Energy for Perth (STEP) project, wasn’t the only one of its nature occurring in the world in 2004. At the same time, the Clean Urban Transport for Europe (CUTE) was running while the Ecological City Transport System (ECTOS) was also going ahead in Iceland.
In total, the three projects involved 33 Daimler Citaro hydrogen fuel-cell buses and a range of different hydrogen production and refuelling solutions in 11 cities around the world, with Perth being the only Australian city to trial these hydrogen vehicles.
After spending time with Daimler engineers and scientists for several years, Whitehouse prepared himself to run the STEP trial in conjunction with CUTE and ECTOS on the other side of the world.
“It all started when the WA government at the time was purchasing a new fleet of conventional buses and Daimler officials told them about the new technology that they’d been developing in Europe,” Whitehouse says.
“WA then joined the ECTOS and CUTE projects to operate the new buses. This was done with the agreement of the European Commission that we would run the three hydrogen bus trials parallel and share all information and data between the projects.
“Hydrogen fuel-cell technology isn’t new – it’s been around since the 1850s and has been used in space travel. But this trial was new in the sense of hydrogen fuel-cell technology being used in mobility and on public transport buses.”
Key parameters were mapped for the project. The trial, which Whitehouse planned, designed and initiated, wasn’t designed to test the optimal efficiency of the buses. Instead, the project was designed to test the fuel cells and balance of plant in the drive train under full public transport operational conditions.
The operating environment in Perth was very different from any other trial site with much higher temperatures, faster speeds and longer runs. The objective was to see what the maximum number of hours the technology could operate for, as well as measuring the availability and reliability of the vehicles.
The trial would run for just over four years after starting in 2004. Although the project is barely known in the Australian bus and coach industry to this day, Whitehouse says the trial was highly successful in measuring the Daimler Citaros’ performance and exchanging information with the other two projects.
“It was a hugely crazy time because we had no idea how much it would cost at all,” Whitehouse says. “We had no local partners to start with other than Daimler and had no clue what we needed or how and where the buses would work.”
Such is the way with novel projects like the STEP trial, there were immediate challenges. When the WA government made the deal with Daimler, a slight communication issue meant Daimler’s sales staff in Germany didn’t know they’d sold the three buses to WA. Whitehouse was promptly sent on a plane to Germany to find out as much as he could about the buses before the trial began.
With a background in environmental management, Whitehouse grew to love the trial as it fed into his passion for the potential future of mobility. After learning about the Daimler vehicles, Whitehouse helped find and develop the hydrogen to use in the fuel cell from offtakes in WA’s fuel refinery.
At this time, BP came on board as the hydrogen production and refuelling partner and was a key support throughout the project.
The trial’s standards stipulated that the hydrogen had to live up to the ‘five nines’ standard, meaning the hydrogen had to be 99.999 per cent pure with some contaminants being zero.
When it came to finding a local operator to run the trial for them, Whitehouse’s life was made a lot easier when Path Transit agreed to the project.
“Path Transit was bloody brilliant throughout the trial,” Whitehouse says. “They were enthusiastic from the start in assigning a mechanic to travel to Canada to the fuel cell manufacturer, Ballard, to learn about how to maintain and repair them. They were also happy to modify their workshops and provide a safe working environment for the bus maintenance.”
Yet a challenge that is well-known today reared its head. Just as Whitehouse had orchestrated all elements of the trial, the Perth public raised their voice.
Whitehouse says the STEP trial faced a campaign of objectors who didn’t want a hydrogen fuel-cell depot in the area. Over the course of 18 months, Whitehouse held discussions with the local shires and community as well as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to dispel hydrogen myths and educate the WA people on the benefits of hydrogen technology.
“As this was a novel trial, people had some bizarre views on technology and hydrogen,” Whitehouse says. “Hydrogen is an extremely light gas, but people were convinced it would leak out and some said it would percolate into the ground water and poison wells.
“We also heard people saying that hydrogen tanks on buses would explode and become missiles and torpedos.”
Alongside designing the trial, Whitehouse combatted this issue by running public education programs for schools, communities, drivers and mechanics, with the end goal to have bus drivers trained as ambassadors of the technology.
The STEP program may not be a household name now in the bus and coach industry, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t have success. Whitehouse says the global trial between the three programs were all successful, with Perth shining ahead of the rest. He says the STEP trial recorded the best fuel economy and the highest reliability and availability with its buses compared to the other two programs.
“The public perception was also really good,” Whitehouse says. “Both the drivers and passengers loved them. The public’s response says they were willing to pay more for clean and silent technology which was heart-warming.
“One of the best stories involved a driver who was heading down the Stirling Highway and a group of ladies stopped and applauded as he drove past.”
The success of the technology in all the sites around the world and the great community response left Whitehouse very surprised when Daimler decided to change its strategy at the end of the trial. In 2007, the STEP trial with Path Transit came to a close and the WA government agreed to end the fuel-cell bus presence in the state.
Since then, Whitehouse has had calls from consultants who view the trial as a failure. Others don’t even know about the program and its groundbreaking results in the southern hemisphere.
The only issue with the project came with the hydrogen refuelling infrastructure. In an issue that’s still rearing its head now, Whitehouse says the design and reliable operation of the hydrogen refuelling infrastructure was highly problematic and continues to be with most hydrogen refuelling operations around the world.
“I’m confident this will only get easier for the industry now,” Whitehouse says. “The vehicles nowadays are so much more efficient and reliable, so hopefully the technology can develop so that refuelling doesn’t remain as the weak point.”
Despite all of these challenges and the end result, Whitehouse wouldn’t change anything to do with the STEP project. His main disappointment revolves around the fact that clean mobility policies and technology never developed in Australia, as can be seen by the absence of broad vehicle emission and fuel standards.
These absences have meant that Australia is effectively at the back of the queue for clean vehicle technology such as hydrogen fuel-cell and electric buses.
Whitehouse is lamenting that the effort to clean Australia’s vehicle fleet has not kept pace with the rest of the world.
He’s still working towards the end goal that the STEP project first opened his eyes to nearly 20 years ago.
“The trial was absolutely awesome despite being extremely difficult and challenging in many ways,” Whitehouse says. “I don’t know what’s in the long run for hydrogen fuel-cell technology in Australia.
“Looking back, to see the development of the vehicle technology at the time was so exciting. I just hope that Australia catches up soon and recaptures the brilliance of hydrogen fuel-cell buses.”