Powering Strong Communities

Public power utilities play a key role in the expansion of electric buses

Public power utilities have been among the leaders in the electrification of public buses and their efforts continue to move forward in several cities.

Seattle City Light passed a major milestone in October when the Seattle City Council approved the utility’s Transportation Electrification Strategic Investment Plan (TESIP), John Owen, the utility’s engineering supervisor for electrification and strategic technology, said. The approval “allows us to move forward under the legislation passed a couple years ago.”

That legislation, House Bill 1512, gave in the state the authority to spend funds on transportation electrification once they create a strategic plan for the outlays and it is approved by the utility’s governing body.

Prior to the passage of the bill in 2019, the Washington State constitution prohibited funds for fuel switching. There was an exemption for energy conservation, but it was unclear if the law barred incentives for technologies such as electric vehicle charging stations.

Seattle City Light’s planned strategic investments fall into two categories: program offerings, including customer-facing incentives, services, education and promotions, and electrification enablement, including the development of infrastructure needed to support transportation electrification.

Shortly after the city council approved the utility’s TESIP plan, Seattle City Light announced the installation of several public electric vehicle fast charging stations in Seattle, part of a pilot program to install 20 fast chargers in the utility’s service area.

But while personal vehicles represent one part of the electric vehicle market, Seattle City Light expects the largest benefits of transportation electrification will come from the electrification of modes of transportation of high-mileage commercial fleets and from services that move large numbers of people, such as transit buses and ferries.

While electrification holds many benefits, such as reduced emissions and noise levels and lower fuel and overall cost-of-ownership costs, it is not without risk, especially when it comes to the electrification of large fleets, commercial or public.

In a report done last fall for Seattle City Light, the Rocky Mountain Institute found that the adoption of personal electric vehicles does not pose much risk for the utility, however, “spot loads associated with electrified buses or medium- and heavy-duty trucks have the very real potential to overwhelm available capacity and require grid upgrades.” Moreover, as those technologies rapidly improve, those segments of the transportation sector are “likely to electrify quickly because they are responsive to the favorable economics of electricity as fuel.”

Seattle City Light has been working with the Rocky Mountain Institute and with the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) to prepare for that transition, as well as coordinating departments within the utility and with other local government agencies to “prepare for a pretty intensive paradigm shift,” Owen said. For example, he said, Seattle City Light historically has not been in the business of installing and maintaining electric batteries.

Seattle City Light is also working with King County Metro, which owns and operates the county’s buses, including those in Seattle, the county seat. The county agency, which is among a handful of early adopters of electric buses in the country, has committed to moving to a 100 percent zero-emissions fleet powered by renewable energy no later than 2040.

As of June 2020, the agency had a fleet of over 1,600 buses of which about 185 were zero-emission buses, including 174 electric trolley buses that use overhead wires, and 11 battery electric buses. In January 2020, King County Metro agreed to purchase 40 battery electric buses and another 80 buses by the end of the year for about $130 million.

King County Metro has received a total of $20 million in grant funding to support the purchase, including $9.1 million from the Federal Transit Administration, partly from the Low-or-No Emission Vehicle Deployment Program, and $10.9 million from the Washington State Department of Ecology Volkswagen Settlement program. The agency is also seeking $3.3 million from the Washington State Department of Transportation’s Green Transportation Capital Program.

Seattle City Light is working with King County Metro to prepare for the transition by building a test facility at the agency’s southern bus depot that will have charging equipment from three different manufacturers to serve three different bus manufacturers. In the world of electric buses, “everyone has their own flavor, so it is a bit of contest how any bus can come into yard, land at any charger and get served,” Owen said.

For that project, Seattle City Light received technical assistance and concept design support from EPRI. “We will continue to work hand in hand with EPRI on testing and commissioning and expect to have the project online in the June timeframe,” Owen said.

Seattle City Light is also actively engaged with Washington State Ferries, part of the state’s Department of Transportation, which is electrifying the ferry to Bainbridge Island and plans to electrify the Bremerton ferry in about five years.

Charging those vessels will draw a lot of power. It is not desirable to build infrastructure large enough to serve that large a load if it is not in continuous use, Owen said, so the utility has begun a feasibility study to determine if it could tap some of the new transportation assets for energy storage that could be used to manage load and, depending on equipment ownership model selected, lower demand charges for the agencies.

The Port of Seattle also has plans to electrify infrastructure such as cranes and lorries. “We are looking forward to a whole lot of interesting things down the road,” Owen said.

Seattle and its utility may be further along on the road to transportation electrification than a lot of other places, but it is a trend that is being seen all across the nation. Owen’s advice to other utilities is to plan for the future and coordinate with other stakeholders. “We can save each other a lot of grief and aggravation if we work together as a team.”

Ambitious Goals in California

California also has ambitious goals for transportation electrification: having 5 million electric vehicles on the road in 10 years. In the state’s capital, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) has been active in transportation electrification for decades and in 2018, with the utility’s support, the capital region drove past the milestone of having 10,000 electric vehicles on the road.

Last spring, SMUD’s board adopted a goal of having net zero carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 2030 and a couple months later raised the bar even higher with a goal of absolute zero CO2 emissions by 2030, “the most aggressive goal for a utility of our size in the country,” Bill Boyce, supervisor of electric transportation at the utility, said.

But, unlike Seattle City Light, SMUD’s focus on fleet electrification has been less on public metropolitan buses. SMUD has been more aggressive on electrifying school buses in its region. “A huge portion of the funding for city transit buses comes from the federal government, and that funding is hard to come by,” Boyce said.

Meanwhile, SMUD has “been doing a lot of work with local school districts,” Boyce said. “Most of the funding comes from the state,” from agencies such as the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District (SMAQMD).

At the end of 2020, SMUD had 79 electric school buses in service in its territory with a goal of having 100 buses in service by year-end 2021.

Electrification moves SMUD closer to meeting its emission goals, but it doesn’t come without its own set of challenges. SMUD estimates that meeting the new absolute net zero goal will increase its electricity needs by about 30% over the next 10 years or so.

Light-duty vehicles are dispersed with most charging at home. The challenge is coming from heavy-duty vehicles and large fleets that will put much bigger demands on utility resources and could require expansion of distribution assets. “We are trying to start up really detailed planning to identify where all fleet vehicles” will be located. “It could require major grid infrastructure in the five year timeline,” which has the potential to drive up costs, Boyce said. “Planning for that is very critical.”

One of the keys to negotiating that transition is going to be energy storage, Boyce said, adding that SMUD is going to be working on how to use vehicles for energy storage. School buses, for instance, are usually not used during the summer. “I really think very positively that the vehicles are going to help us with this transition,” Boyce said.

The transformation that is under way is “a total rewrite of our electrical transportation sector, a total change,” Boyce said, and that is going to require people to install charging stations, perform maintenance. That creates the opportunity for job creation, so SMUD has engaged in workforce training, partnering with vocational-technical schools and other community organizations to drive workforce development and “get people in the pipeline,” Boyce said.

SMUD accelerates its fleet electrification

In recent news, on Feb. 1, SMUD reported that it has partnered with Zeus Electric Chassis Inc. and the California Mobility Center to procure five custom, all-electric work trucks as it works to transition to an all-electric fleet.

The trucks are the only all-electric work truck chassis manufactured in North America in the medium duty class and will be customized for a variety of uses throughout SMUD’s service territory.

SMUD noted that it was introduced to Zeus through its work with the California Mobility Center, which was founded to serve as an innovation hub of policy, funding and commercialization of clean transportation technologies including autonomous transportation, electric vehicles, battery storage, shared mobility solutions, public transit and more.

Los Angeles

In California’s biggest city, Los Angeles’ mayor, Eric Garcetti, this month said the city now has over 10,000 commercial electric vehicle charging stations, putting the city two years ahead of schedule and giving it the most charging stations of any city in the United States.

As the chair of the Metro Board, Garcetti has directed the agency to adopt a plan to transition Los Angeles’ bus fleet to 100 percent zero emissions by 2030, making it the largest American transportation agency to embrace such a standard. The Metro Board is slated to finish electrifying the city’s G line buses in the first quarter and plans to convert the J Line by early 2022. Last spring, Los Angeles purchased 155 electric buses.

The city’s public power utility, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), views the introduction of electric buses as a positive. They can help “improve grid utilization and sustainability by helping to manage peak demand and supporting renewable energy integration,” a utility spokesperson said. LADWP also is looking at electric buses for their potential to return stored energy back to the grid via vehicle-to-grid applications.

Those benefits do not come without challenges, however, which include keeping up with the pace of the infrastructure needed to supply load that electric buses will add to the grid. To address those challenges, LADWP is working with the city’s Department of Transportation (LADOT) and MTA Transit through biweekly calls to ensure that electric deployment plans and schedules are communicated and engineering plans are prepared to accommodate the increased load, both near term and long term.

So far, LADWP has helped LADOT install 255 charging stations to support 510 electric buses by 2028. LADWP also has created a fleet rate structure for electric fleet vehicle charging to provide LADOT the flexibility for varying electric bus charging strategies and changing customer needs.

LADWP has also developed a memorandum of understanding that establishes a funding commitment to facilitate the purchase and installation of charging infrastructure to support electric buses.

East Coast activity

On the other side of the country, the New York Power Authority (NYPA) in late December announced several initiatives aimed at increasing the number of electric buses in the state, including an award of $16.4 million from the Volkswagen settlement fund and $2.5 million targeted for school bus operators to acquire cleaner forms of transportation.

The Volkswagen funds are being made available under the New York Truck Voucher Incentive Program to five of the largest public transit operators in the state – the Capital District Transportation Authority, Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, Rochester-Genesee Regional Transit Authority, Suffolk County Transportation, and Westchester County Bee-Line Bus System – to facilitate their transition towards 100 percent zero-emission fleets by 2035. Combined, the five transit operators run more than 1,300 buses.

The voucher program covers all incremental vehicle value for the purchase of a zero-emission electric bus as long as the vehicle is housed at bus depots or operate on routes located within a half-mile of a disadvantaged community.

The voucher incentive program is also administering the $2.5 million for electric school buses with the same conditions.

NYPA also reached an agreement with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) that includes more than $1 million in funding to help the five suburban transit operators develop plans to convert to all-electric buses, including the cost effective installation of charging stations. The funding is also designed to cover the cost of studies on large scale charging hubs and the need for high-speed charging to extend the range of electric buses. The overall goal is for the state’s transit agencies to reach 25% electric buses by 2025 and 100% by 2035.

NYPA is also partnering with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on the installation of bus chargers at bus depots throughout New York City to help the authority in meeting its goal of having 500 electric buses by 2025 and a full electric bus fleet by 2040.

Looking further into 2021, NYPA has a project pipeline of nearly 60 charging station projects to serve electric buses and is working with the Department of Environmental Conservation to allocate Volkswagen diesel settlement funds.

“We are going to be building the charging infrastructure for transit buses, slowly but surely electrifying the public bus transit system here in New York,” Gil Quiniones, CEO and president of NYPA, said in an Association podcast.


In Florida, Orlando’s transit agency, LYNX, added eight electric buses to serve its four LYMMO fare-free downtown circular routes. These new buses were funded through the Federal Transit Administration’s Low or No Emission Vehicle Grant. Through an additional federal grant, LYMMO plans to add six more buses to its fleet. The goal is for LYMMO to have a 100 percent zero-emissions fleet by 2025.

OUC, the region’s public power utility, is supporting the electrification effort by installing stations to charge the buses when they are not in service.

OUC is also providing assistance in the procurement of charging stations and batteries to help LYNX implement the project.

Burlington Electric Department

Meanwhile, Vermont’s Green Mountain Transit (GMT) and Burlington Electric Department (BED), on Jan. 28 unveiled for the public GMT’s first two electric-powered transit E-buses.

The new E-buses, scheduled to be in service this March, are the first electric transit buses in Vermont and will help reduce carbon emissions in Burlington and Chittenden County while providing clean, quiet transit along GMT service area routes.

As part of the Burlington net zero energy strategy, BED provided significant incentives, secured additional funding from the Vermont Low Income Trust for Electricity and, together with the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans), helped secure further funding from the federal government to ensure that GMT had the resources necessary to expand electric transit options in Burlington.

The new E-buses arrived in Burlington in Janaury and were engineered and manufactured by Proterra at its East Coast headquarters in Greenville, S.C.

The E-buses have 324 kWh of battery capacity and will be charged overnight during off-peak hours with 100 percent renewably-sourced electricity at GMT’s Burlington garage, BED said.

While Proterra indicates that the E-buses have an operating range of up to 187 miles on a single charge, actual range will depend on a number of variables, including topography, passenger loads, number of stops, and weather.

Proterra’s initial range estimates for GMT, based upon local topography and weather and on comparing the actual range of Proterra buses that are serving other similarly-situated locations, are 140 miles in non-winter months and 100 miles in winter months. GMT will have an accurate sense of mileage range once the new E-buses are in full operation in their service environment. 

E-Buses, Not Just for Big Cities

Larger cities are not the only ones shifting to electric buses. In 2015, Seneca, a city of about 9,000 people in western South Carolina, became the first city in the country to have a totally electric bus system when it deployed five battery-electric buses and two fast charging stations.

The purchases were funded with a $4.1 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration’s Transit Investments for Greenhouse Gas and Energy Reduction Program, and a $1.8 million Bus Livability Program grant, as well as private funds.

The funds allowed Seneca to replace its existing fleet of diesel buses with fast-charging battery electric buses built locally by Proterra in Greenville, S.C. The electric buses are operated by Clemson Area Transit, which runs a separate system in Clemson and provides local transportation in Seneca. The electric buses, cost about $900,000 each, are more expensive than diesel buses, but are expected to pay back the higher cost through lower fuel expenses in 12 years.

Separately, this month, Proterra announced it will become a publicly listed company through a merger with special purpose acquisition company ArcLight Clean Transition in a deal that values Proterra at $1.6 billion and includes $415 million from Daimler Trucks, Franklin Templeton, Fidelity Management & Research, BlackRock, and other investors.

In 2019, the city of Ames, Iowa, won a $1.66 million grant from the Department of Transportation to add electric buses and charging infrastructure to the city's public transportation fleet. The city’s transit authority, CyRide, is using the funds to add to electric buses and replace diesel buses that have exceeded their useful life.

The funding also covers a 480-volt transformer, dispensing station and chargers, as well as facility modifications. The total project cost is $2.137 million.

The city utility’s role is to upgrade equipment to accommodate the new equipment, Donald Kom, director of Ames Electric Services, said. Currently, the electric bus project is still in the testing phase. “CyRide is going to test the electric buses and see how it goes,” Kom said. CyRide’s aim is to have zero-emission buses in its fleet by spring 2022.

There are 528 electric buses in service in the United States, according to a 2019 report from the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG). It is a small number relative to a nationwide fleet of about 65,000. But the number is growing.

The number of electric buses in 2019 was 29 percent higher than in 2018, according to PIRG. The research organization added that recent pledges by California, New York City and Seattle to transition to zero-emission fleets mean that 33 percent of all transit buses in the U.S. are committed to transition to electric fleets by 2045.

APPA fleet electrification report

The American Public Power Association has produced a report that outlines the various considerations and opportunities for fleet electrification, such as costs and incentives, charging infrastructure, and operations and maintenance.

By understanding this market, individuals at public power utilities, state/regional associations, and joint action agencies can make informed decisions as they consider electrifying their fleet and assist other fleet operators as they transition to EVs.

For more information, click here.