All throughout 2018, we have published articles about the accelerating demand in battery-electric buses being procured by public transportation agencies. We also have seen the continued growth in bus rapid transit (BRT). However, the early experience of agencies employing this new technology in BRT service has been mixed. We as an industry need to be clear-eyed about how new battery buses are, the challenges they face, and the alternatives available to ensure the reliability that BRT demands. The last thing that our industry needs is a series of high-profile failures.

Battery bus demand growing rapidly
Zero-emission buses (ZEBs) powered by three types of energy storage and distribution: electric batteries, hydrogen fuel cells, and electric overhead catenary in the case of trolleybuses. More and more agencies in public transportation have ordered battery-electric buses and a few continue to experiment with hydrogen fuel-cell buses. The battery-electric variety is growing rapidly, mostly because the costs of deploying them are much less expensive than those for hydrogen fuel cells.

Funding also matters, as the so-called federal “Lo-No grant” program, a set-aside within the Major Capital Investment Program, has continued to grow in recent years. In addition, many state and local governments, which oversee as much as 40% of the U.S. population and the American economy, remain committed to greenhouse-gas emissions reductions contained in the Paris climate agreement, and policies to achieve them. For example, California is poised to issue a new regulation early next year that would mandate all transit agencies to have completed a transition to ZEBs by 2040.

BRT service raises reliability stakes
Meanwhile, BRT deployments continue at a steadily increasing pace. Indeed, virtually every agency in METRO’s Top 100 Transit Bus Fleets has either a BRT line in service, or one in the works. An increasing number of these are planning to operate these new lines with battery-electric buses, following the examples of Albuquerque; Indianapolis; and San Joaquin, Calif.

Deployment of ZEBs still face several challenges, however, and at least three have significant implications for BRT project success. The first of these is range, though rapid improvements in battery storage have been made in recent years, which make deployments increasingly feasible for BRT, because BRT service requires more hours of operation than typical local service. A second challenge, though, is reliability, which is also getting better, but in practice, remains less than older propulsion technologies. The final challenge, operating cost, remains the most vexing, largely because of electricity rates in most regions of the U.S. Fortunately, electric utilities are beginning to respond favorably to transit’s need for more cost-effective rates.

All three of these issues bear watching in the coming year. They have particular importance for BRT.