More electric buses join transit fleets as costs and technology improve

Transit agencies are transitioning from diesel buses to electric buses.

Transit leaders say that planning, training, and learning from other cities will help smooth the transition to fleets of buses that don't produce emissions.

Transit agencies are transitioning from diesel buses to electric buses. This is a silent revolution that is happening. Clean, quiet buses are being used now. However, this transition is not as easy as buying new buses. There are many things that need to be considered before making the switch.

According to data compiled yearly by Calstart, the number of battery-electric transit buses (BEBs) on order or currently in use in the U.S. has grown by 112% from 2018 to 2021. California has the highest number of BEBs, with almost 1,400 on the road or on order, followed by Washington, New York and Florida. There are a much smaller number of fuel-cell electric buses currently in use, but their numbers are growing as well.

"The market is doing well with many successful deployments happening all across the country," said Dan Raudebaugh, executive director of the Center for Transportation and the Environment (CTE). CTE is a nonprofit that helps develop and implement advanced transportation technologies. Raudebaugh said they have helped more than 70 transit agencies put electric buses on the street. He named Austin, Texas; Seattle, Los Angeles and Oakland, California as leaders in adopting battery-powered buses. He added that smaller cities like Portland, Maine; Duluth, Minnesota; and Gainesville, Florida are also adding these vehicles.

"Deploying these buses is challenging, but the buses work," Raudebaugh said. Electric vehicles cost more, mainly due to the high cost of batteries, and that affects procurement budgets. Transit agencies rely on federal funds for most of the purchase price of buses, he said. The $1 trillion infrastructure legislation that passed last year increased the amount of money that the Federal Transit Administration can give to agencies for buying buses that do not produce emissions. Raudebaugh said that the transition from fossil-fueled buses to electric buses may require operational changes due to charging cycles and range limits. Transit agencies need to carefully evaluate their current service and the feasibility of applying zero-emission technology. He said that planning is essential for transit agencies; many have already started to test the waters with a small number of buses. Now, with that experience, they’re getting ready to commit to transitioning their entire fleets to battery electrics. “We have long been convinced that public transit will be the first transportation sector to transition to zero emission,” Raudebaugh said.

How a large transit agency is preparing for an all-electric bus fleet

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) operates around 180 bus routes with an average weekday ridership of 276,000. In 2019, the MBTA purchased five 60-foot battery-electric buses for the Silver Line. This line serves Logan Airport, Boston South Station, Chinatown and other communities. The agency expects to operate a fully electric fleet by 2040.

Bill Wolfgang and Scott Hamwey, from the MBTA's department of vehicle engineering and modernization respectively, are leading the switch to electric buses. They explained in an interview that one of the things they learned was how Boston's cold winters play havoc with battery range - due to the frequent stops and repeated door openings. Wolfgang said that keeping the bus interiors warm added to battery drain.

Wolfgang said that there were some reliability issues with the buses. He explained that there were connection issues between the chargers and the vehicles which reduced initial recharge reliability to less than 50%. That meant that some buses weren’t fully charged for the next day’s runs. However, technology has advanced, and charger reliability is now close to 90%, according to Wolfgang. This allows us to transition our fleet into the modern day. One remaining barrier for the MBTA is that its bus depots and maintenance facilities are unable to accommodate electric buses.

The MBTA is not planning to charge people for using the buses for now. This means that the buses need to be fully recharged every night so they can continue running the next day. This could require nightly monitoring of 100 to 200 buses per depot.

According to Hamwey, the MBTA plans to renovate and modernize five of its nine bus facilities by the end of the decade. The goal is not just to improve the appearance of these facilities, but also to add bus capacity in order to accommodate future ridership growth. In addition, new charging systems and overhead pantographs will be installed so that the electric fleets can be charged at these facilities.

Renovations are important because the MBTA wants to replace its buses every 12 years. This means they need to buy new buses every year. But if the maintenance facilities are not ready for battery-electric vehicles, they will have to buy diesel-electric hybrid buses.

Wolfgang says that it will cost $4.5 billion to upgrade all of MBTA's bus facilities and $100 million to $130 million annually for new buses. However, he also said that maintenance costs for electric buses could be lower over the life of the vehicles than they are for diesel or compressed natural gas (CNG) buses.

Electric buses offer many benefits. "It gives our workforce a cleaner environment," Wolfgang said, adding that these buses will be quieter and nonpolluting for the communities they serve. "This is an opportunity for us as a government agency to lead in this area," Wolfgang declared, seated in front of a large picture of a new hybrid-electric bus soon to come to Boston. "It's on the production line with New Flyer," he explained about the vehicle pictured behind him. "We're really excited about this one."

Manufacturing the future of zero-emission bus transit

New Flyer, a bus manufacturer in Winnipeg, Manitoba, got its start in 1930. Today it is the largest transit bus manufacturer in North America. It launched its first hybrid-electric bus in 1999 and its first battery-electric bus in 2012.

Jennifer McNeill, vice president of public sector sales and marketing for the company, said she saw a change in the transit bus market in late 2019. Agencies were no longer willing to make traditional five-year commitments to buy buses. Instead, they were uncertain about what type of bus to buy - whether diesel or CNG buses, or even battery or fuel-cell electric buses. But with the onset of the pandemic, many transit agencies put purchasing on hold.

As sales increased, McNeill said that "We're seeing a much larger percentage of vehicles being zero-emission, with New Flyer receiving larger orders and agencies committing to multiyear agreements." He believes "Now we're getting into true transition."

The industry is working together to create charging standards that will work for multiple bus manufacturers. This will help the shift to electric buses. Electric buses have a longer range than before.

Austin commits to electrifying its transit fleet by 2035

CapMetro, a transportation authority in Austin, Texas, ordered 30 battery-electric buses from New Flyer and 26 from Proterra. They have options to purchase over 250 more. The agency, which has a 426-bus fleet, has 12 electric buses that have been in service for two years. Deputy CEO Dottie Watkins said she expects the agency to fully electrify its transit fleet around 2035, replacing its 55 commuter buses somewhat later.

Watkins exclaimed that going and buying a bus is suddenly fun and cool. She also mentioned that there are some challenges with charging and range management.

CapMetro will use both depot charging and on-route charging, placing chargers at transit centers, park-and-ride locations and major transfer points. That, Watkins said, will allow them to have the same range as diesel buses. She also said the agency is talking with the local municipally-owned utility, Austin Energy, so that the power grid will be ready where and when the growing number of battery buses will be deployed.

Watkins stressed the importance of worker training: “We have seen firsthand how important it is to have well-trained employees for the successful deployment of electric buses.”

She said they talked to cities including Los Angeles and Seattle that had more experience with electric buses in order to learn about any issues they had faced. She urged other transit agencies to do the same: "Talk to other transit systems that have operated electric buses. Don't be afraid to ask for help."

Small transit agency in Oregon has big goals

The Lane Transit District (LTD) provides transportation services for people in Lane County, Oregon. This includes the cities of Eugene and Springfield. LTD has a fleet of 100 buses, which includes diesel-electric hybrid buses and 11 battery-electric buses. The agency plans to have 30% of its fleet be clean battery-electric buses by the end of 2022.

The agency spent $10.6 million on electric vehicles and depot chargers. The purchase was partially funded by the FTA's Low or No Emission Vehicle Grant Program.

The district was prepared for the electric vehicles by installing plug-in depot chargers and training technicians about the vehicles' electric systems. Drivers were already familiar with hybrid-electric buses, so they had no trouble driving the battery-electric buses after a training course. "Some drivers love it as a challenge to see how much state-of-charge they can bring the bus back with," Imlach said.

The agency operates buses that make frequent stops and some bus rapid transit lines. These buses travel farther with limited stops. However, this is a problem for the current range of electric buses. The agency is evaluating hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles for those routes.

Dealing with the cold in Canada and Northern U.S. cities

Cities with cold climates are not shying away from battery-electric buses. Winnipeg Transit began operating its first BEBs in 2014 and now plans a side-by-side test of eight long-range battery-electric buses and eight fuel-cell electric buses for 12-18 months, supplied by New Flyer. The Toronto Transit Commission and the University of Michigan have also ordered battery-powered buses.

Christos Kritsidimas, spokesperson for Nova Bus, a Canadian-based subsidiary of Volvo Group said that the technology is always changing and getting better. Every change brings more battery density which means longer range and a longer life for the batteries.

Nova Bus recently received an order for 24 electric buses from four transit authorities in the province of Quebec. In a statement, Catherine Fournier, mayor of Longueuil, said she expects half of the city's bus fleet to be electric by 2030.

Accelerating the transition to zero-emission

So far, battery-electric buses have been the most popular type of zero-emission bus. As of September 2021, Calstart counted 3,364 battery-electric buses and 169 fuel-cell electric buses in use or on order in the U.S.

Fuel-cell vehicles use compressed hydrogen gas as an energy source. The gas is combined with oxygen in a special chamber, and the reaction creates heat, water and electricity. The electric output charges the onboard batteries, which lets these vehicles travel as far as diesel or natural gas buses.

A lot of fuel-cell electric buses are found in California. California has been supportive of hydrogen as a zero-emission fuel. Two bus companies in California, Foothill Transit and SunLine Transit Agency, have decided to use hydrogen-powered buses. Illinois has also gotten involved with this technology. The Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District bought 60-foot buses that run on hydrogen power and also built a station to produce hydrogen fuel from solar energy.

Many people in the bus manufacturing industry believe that hydrogen fuel cells are a good way to power buses. There are two main types of electric buses - fuel cell electric and battery electric. The bus manufacturers say they are ready to help with the transition.

Shane Levy, spokesperson for Proterra, said "Today, the question is no longer if communities will transition to 100% zero-emission transportation, but how fast we can get there."

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