California transit buses to be emissions-free by 2040

California’s transit authorities will stop buying diesel buses in 2029 and will have zero-emission bus fleets by 2040 under a regulation approved by the state’s Air Resources Board.

The move comes as states are increasingly looking to electrify their transportation sectors, a move that has electric utilities rolling out various electric vehicle programs to bolster charging infrastructure while in some cases offering special rates for night-time charging.

The regulation is part of an effort to cut emissions from the transportation sector, which accounts for 40 percent of California’s GHG emissions and roughly 85 percent of its smog-forming pollutants, according to the board. Overall, California aims to cut its GHG emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

The CARB estimates that the Innovative Clean Transit regulation, approved Dec. 14, will cut GHG emissions by 19 million metric tons from 2020 to 2050, the same as taking 4 million cars off the road. It will also lower emissions of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter by about 7,000 tons and 40 tons, respectively, in the same period, according to the state agency.

California’s 200 transit agencies are expected to have 1,000 zero-emission buses by 2020, up from 153 today. The transit agencies have about 12,000 buses statewide, according to the CARB.

Zero-emission buses, which run on batteries and hydrogen fuel cells, are acting as a “beachhead” in the heavy-duty vehicle sectors, according to the CARB.

The new regulation requires each transit agency to submit a rollout plan showing how it will buy zero-emission buses, build needed infrastructure and train its workforce. Large transit agencies must file the plans in 2020 and small agencies have another three years to submit their plans.

By 2029, all new bus purchases must be zero-emission. In an effort to encourage early action, the zero-emission purchase requirement would not start until 2025 if a minimum number of zero-emission bus purchases are made before 2022.

The CARB estimates that the transit agencies will save $1.5 billion in maintenance, fuel and other costs by 2050 after the buildout of required infrastructure.

California has various programs that support the zero-emission bus rule, according to the CARB. Public funding for zero-emission vehicles and charging infrastructure is administered by the CARB, the California State Transportation Agency, Caltrans, the California Energy Commission and local agencies. 

The CARB estimates that there is about $1.6 billion in available funding and incentives for zero-emission buses, including $130 million from a settlement with Volkswagen.

Also, the CARB said utilities are supporting the effort with new electric rate designs and investments in charging infrastructure. The California Public Utilities Commission, for example, has approved heavy-duty vehicle investments totaling $236 million for Pacific Gas & Electric and $343 million for Southern California Edison. The PUC is reviewing a $151 million proposal for San Diego Gas & Electric.

The state’s Department of General Services is streamlining bus purchases through a single statewide zero-emission bus purchase contract.

The regulation includes various exemptions, including ones to prevent service cuts or fare increases.

Electric transit buses cost about $200,000 more than diesel buses, but they save about $400,000 in fuel and maintenance costs over the life of the buses, according to a late October report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.