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Electric buses for mass transit seen as cost effective

An analysis of electric bus pilot programs in several cities show that electric buses can provide clean, efficient, cost-effective transportation, according to a new report.

The report, Electric Buses in America: Lessons from Cities Pioneering Clean Transportation, was published by Environment America Research and Policy Center, Frontier Group, and U.S. PIRG, a federation of public interest research groups.

The study found problems with electric bus programs in some cities, but in most of the places where they were tested electric buses have met or exceeded expectations in a broad range of climates and terrain types, often delivering significant cost savings, the report found.

Buses account for nearly half of all public transit use in the United States. In addition, school buses carry about half of all children to school each day. The use of electric buses in the nation’s transportation fleet is still small but it is growing rapidly, according to the report, which counted a total of 528 fully electric, battery driven buses in service across the country, a 29% increase in 2018 alone.

In addition, California, New York City and Seattle have pledged to transition to zero-emission fleets, meaning that 33% of all transit buses in the United States are in line to be powered by electricity by 2045.

And while electric buses are still more expensive that fossil fueled buses, electric buses can provide cost savings over the long run. An average diesel transit bus costs around $500,000, compared with $750,000 for an electric bus, and a diesel school bus costs around $110,000 compared with $230,000 for an electric school bus, according to the report.

Over its lifetime, however, an electric bus could save $400,000 in fuel expenses and $125,000 in averted maintenance costs, according to figures from bus manufacturer New Flyer that were cited in the report. Electric buses could provide fuel and maintenance savings of up to $50,000 a year over fossil fuel powered buses, resulting in a five year payback period, according to estimates from another bus manufacturer, Proterra, cited in the report. Electric buses have significantly fewer parts than fossil fuel buses. They do not have an exhaust system, their braking systems last longer, and they do not require oil changes.

In addition, if a bus is equipped with vehicle-to-grid (V2G) capabilities, it could potentially generate up to $6,000 a year in V2G revenues, depending on a utility’s rates.

The report also notes that government funding and other incentives can also help bring down the cost for cities investing in an electric fleet. For instance, California’s Hybrid and Zero-Emission Truck and Bus Voucher Incentive Project (HVIP) offers up to $235,000 for electric school buses sold in the state. And the Federal Transit Administration’s Low or No Emission Program provides funding to state and local government agencies to purchase or lease zero-emission and low-emission transit buses and related infrastructure. In 2019, the program allocated just under $85 million in grants to 38 projects in 38 states.

Among the successes cited in the report is the case of Seneca, South Carolina, a public power city that switched to an electric fleet in 2014. The city’s transportation agency has found the charging time for the buses to be quicker and the range longer than expected.

In a comparison between its electric buses and diesel buses operating in other locations it serves, the transit agency found the fuel efficiency of the electric fleet to be 16.5 miles per gallon equivalent compared with 3.8 miles per gallon for the diesel fleet and the fuel per mile cost $0.28 for the electric buses compared with $0.59 for diesel. Maintenance costs for the electric buses was $0.55 per mile compared with $1.53 for the diesel fleet.

Chicago is also pleased with the results of its pilot program, and the Chicago Transit Authority is moving forward with a plan to electrify its entire fleet by 2040.

Albuquerque, New Mexico, on the other hand, experienced a string of mechanical problems and inadequate infrastructure planning, as well as a rocky relationship with the bus manufacturer. The city’s experience, however, provides valuable lessons and Albuquerque in August announced plans to relaunch its electric bus efforts.

Among the takeaways of the report are several recommendations. Cities and states should commit to a full transition to electric buses on a specific timeline in order to help grow the market, drive technological innovation, and enable transit agencies and school districts to gain the benefits of economies of scale in maintenance facilities, operational experience and electricity pricing, the authors say.

The authors also argue that states should provide grant programs and subsidies for agencies to switch to electric buses to ensure agencies and the communities they serve will experience the benefits of electric buses without incurring additional financial burdens on them.

And the report says that utilities should implement financing programs that provide upfront investment funds for initial investments in electric buses. Those funds could be paid back on utility bills as they save on fuel and maintenance costs. Such “pay as you save” (PAYS) programs can help agencies overcome the higher upfront costs of electric buses and deliver monetary savings immediately, the report says.

The report also recommends that utilities provide discounted off-peak charging rates, limit excessive demand charges and experiment with policies and practices that allow battery-electric buses to be used to store energy that could be available to the grid.

Public power utilities and electric buses

Along with Seneca, other public power communities and utilities are also involved in electric bus activities.

For example, the city of Ames, Iowa, was recently awarded a $1.66 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant to put more electric buses into the city's public transportation fleet, the Associated Press reported.

The Rocky Mountain Institute worked with Seattle City Light to develop the first comprehensive transportation electrification strategy for a municipal utility, looking across all market segments—personally owned vehicles, trucks, buses, and shared mobility.

Among other things, the report highlighted large spot loads associated with electrified fleets of buses or medium- and heavy-duty trucks, which can easily overwhelm available capacity and require grid upgrades.

In California, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s efforts and partnerships have brought electric school buses to local districts.

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