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Electric bus adoption has lots of roadblocks: New reports offer solutions

New research from the World Resources Institute offers roadmap for electrifying mass transit

An electric bus in Krakow, Poland pausing at a charging station.

Transportation is one of the largest sources of carbon emissions, and amid the barrage of big-picture initiatives and bold pledges, one of the simplest, quickest-to-implement solutions is electrifying buses.

Unlike so many other proposed climate change solutions, electrifying buses is literally plug-and-play: The technology exists and can immediately be added to existing transit systems. For example, in Shenzhen, China, the city’s entire fleet of just over 16,000 buses has transitioned to electric power; that’s more than the combined number of buses operating in New York City, Los Angeles, Toronto, Chicago, and the entire state of New Jersey.

A pair of new reports by the World Resources Institute (WRI) offers a comprehensive look at the state of electric bus adoption and provides a roadmap for the technology’s possibilities. Barriers to Adopting Electric Buses and How to Enable Electric Bus Adoption in Cities Worldwide present case studies from 16 different transit agencies in China, Europe, and the U.S. as part of a how-to guide to electrification. The reports also include advice on coping with new technological, financial, and institutional challenges.

More cities are testing electric bus technology; globally, sales of electric buses increased 80-fold between 2011 and 2017, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. But few have made electric buses a mainstream transit option. Since buses provide more mass transit trips than light rail or other sources in the U.S. but are also facing declining ridership, now is the time to turn trial runs into long-term policy, and improve a backbone of the U.S. transit system.

It’s also a good time to implement relatively affordable solutions for transit’s future. As some cities embark on costly experiments with untested technology, and others focus on expanding light rail and subway systems, fixed transit systems which carry heavy upfront investments, electric buses offer myriad benefits. They are quieter and cleaner than traditional alternatives, require less maintenance (which saves money over the long run), and help cut down on urban air pollution.

Here are the key takeaways from the report.

An electric bus in Shenzhen, China
Anqi Zhao

Shenzhen, the key case study, resulted from long-term planning and subsidies

When Shenzhen became the first city in the world with an all-electric bus system, it was clear that government support and subsidies were a big part of the shift. According to the report, new electric buses could receive a $150,000 subsidy in 2016 from the Chinese government, which covered half the cost. In the U.S., funding sources like the Federal Transit Administration and EPA don’t come close to matching that amount.

But Shenzhen didn’t achieve this milestone due to investment alone. City officials made a concerted effort between 2009 and 2017 to create and follow a step-by-step plan to test, iterate, and invest in the new technology. Part of the reason it achieved success was early recognition of electrification’s potential.

Research found that 20 percent of vehicular carbon dioxide emissions in the city came from buses, which represented 0.5 percent of total vehicles. Bus electrification made achieving environmental targets possible by focusing on a relatively small number of vehicles.

Looking at infrastructure, and charging systems, in a new way

Both reports go through detailed checklists of how cities should analyze the potential of electric buses. And each report plots out the right way to build the necessary charging systems, driver training programs, and other investments to get large-scale trials and e-bus services up and running. When Philadelphia installed new gear for its electric bus trial, for example, it found chargers comprised just 40 percent of new infrastructure for its pilot project.

But as cities make plans and debate budgets, it’s crucial to evaluate the upsides of electrification, namely long-term savings and pollution reduction.

In Izmir, Turkey, transit officials found that the operating costs for a small fleet of 20 e-buses led to significant savings. These savings included an percent reduction in fuel costs and a 60 percent drop in maintenance costs compared to traditional buses. Plus, by using a solar plant to power the new electric fleet, Izmir avoided nearly 420 tons of CO2 emissions. To help cities do the math and understand the potential savings from a similar fleet overhaul, WRI is creating a tool to evaluate the savings potential of electric buses.

An electric bus from U.S. manufacturer Proterra

It’s also crucial to look at land use, since adding large new charging stations can be more tricky than initially expected; stakeholders like power companies and regulators may need to get involved. Many bus systems lease land, which makes installing huge chargers a larger financial risk.

In Santiago, Chile, the local utility company was a leader in figuring out how to implement an electric bus system. Early involvement with the utility company helped planners test technology, reinforce the electrical grid, and help with procurement. Transit officials planned the initial routes based in part on charging system availability, making it easier to run and operate, and setting the table for an expansion of electric buses later.

Failure to consider these factors can have negative consequences. In Campinas, Brazil, the lack of charging capacity at the outset of electric bus trials meant the city needed to run a diesel power generator to keep the new vehicles running, eliminating any potential environmental gains from going electric.

Make sure to respond to local conditions

Both reports also lay out detailed procurement programs that different cities have set up to guarantee any new vehicles meet the needs of their drivers and passengers—and hold up to area terrain.

In Campinas, Brazil, for example, new electric buses weren’t equipped to deal with the city’s rough roads, leading to cracks when running on uneven surfaces. In the hilly and highly elevated city of Bogotá, Colombia, new buses’ suspension systems didn’t cope well with the challenge of constant climbing. In Cape Town, arson and vandalism created public safety risks for existing transit systems and cost the city millions of dollars, a key factor taken into account when planning new routes and charging station locations.

It sounds simple, but in a rush to copy successful trials and pilot programs, cities need to pause and consider the impact of local conditions.