As sustainable practices continue to come into focus for counties, cities, and municipalities around the nation, transit agencies are continuing to focus on the potential of adding electric buses to their fleets.
Despite the promises of zero-emissions and being good stewards to the communities they serve, many transit agencies are going down the road of electric buses at a relatively slow rate.
“The state of the transit agency market right now is that you are seeing a lot more RFPs for electric bus pilots than the really large projects,” explains James Tillman, director, business development, for MaxGen Energy Services, a contractor that operates and maintains clean energy infrastructure.
For some early adopters, as well as those who have chosen to aggressively reduce emissions, though, electric bus implementation charges forward, with transit agencies eyeing either going all-electric, or at the very least, 100% alternative-fueled.
METRO spoke to some early electric bus testers about the necessary infrastructure upgrades, training, and outreach that is needed before adding the vehicles to their fleet, as well as how those transit agencies are moving forward with the technology.
The emergence of electric buses in the market brought with it much excitement and interest to the industry, especially those already trying to clean up their carbon footprint.
“Under the previous administrator, we began upgrading our bus fleet around 2008 with the purchase of some Gillig diesel-electric hybrid buses, as well as some clean diesel buses, as we began looking at ways to meet air quality conformity here in the Worcester area,” explains Jonathan Church, administrator for the Mass.-based Worcester Regional Transit Authority (WRTA). “In 2012, we applied for a Federal Transit Administration (FTA) Clean Fuels Grant for the purchase of three electric buses and the overhead and depot chargers necessary to run those buses.”
Today, WRTA is running six Proterra electric buses across a variety of routes in its service area. Church explains that the agency is holding off on adding more units as it waits to see how the technology continues to evolve.
Indianapolis’ IndyGo also started its electric bus program with an FTA grant around 2012, opting for 21 refurbished Complete Coach Works (CCW) battery-electric buses after first exploring a move to CNG that would have been too costly for the agency because its existing bus facility is on a historic site.
Vicki Learn, director of maintenance at IndyGo, explains the agency was bullish on the technology, as well as its evolution, and so it viewed the electric bus implementation as an opportunity to prove its viability.
“Since we started running those buses, we have seen a revolution with the technology’s viability,” she says. “Whether it’s inductive or conductive charging, long-range or short-range, we are seeing there isn’t just one way you can implement electric buses, but multiple solutions. IndyGo is continuing to evaluate which options will work best for specific applications within our agency.”
IndyGo has contracted with BYD to provide electric buses for its Red Line BRT service set to launch in 2019. Beyond rapid transit applications, the agency plans to leverage more all-electric technology for regular local service. Recently they released an RFP for the purchase of up to 116 electric buses to replace vehicles in the agency’s regular service.
“In 2018, IndyGo will be receiving what we expect will be the agency’s last order of diesel buses, so within 12 years we will be all-electric,” says Learn.
Calif.’s Long Beach Transit (LBT) began looking at electric buses as a way to demonstrate their viability, especially due to some of the environmental issues that are experienced in the area.
“We have an enormous port complex right next door to us, the Port of Long Beach/Port of Los Angeles, and a tremendous amount of diesel pollution come from that complex on a daily basis. So much so, that there is a well-established statistic out there that 15 percent of children in Long Beach suffer from asthma, which is roughly twice the national average,” says Paul Gonzales, manager, external affairs/public information officer, at LBT. “We consider the emissions from diesel motors to be a significant causation to that. We believe that if we can show that large-scale adoption of battery-electric technology in public transit can make an impact on that pollution, it can be expanded to the commercial operations of the port, leading to a significant improvement in air quality.”
LBT began providing transit services with 10 BYD buses in March 2017 on its Passport Route — a free service that runs around downtown. Eleven months after launch, the agency saw a reduction of Co2 and NOx emissions of 353 metric tons, according to Gonzales.
Like IndyGo, LBT is also looking to phase out its diesel bus fleet, looking at 2020 as the year it will be 100% alternatively-propelled, with a mix of CNG and battery-electric buses.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), which already met a goal of being 100% alternatively-fueled in 2011, began exploring moving to 100% zero-emissions in 2013 and added its first of five BYD battery-electric buses in 2015. After a successful demonstration, the agency placed an additional three orders for electric buses, which includes five 60-foot and 60 40-foot BYD buses and up to 40 New Flyer 60-foot buses, for its Orange and Silver BRT services as part of its plan to be all zero-emissions by 2030.
“We have a two-phase plan,” explains Jess Montes, sr. executive officer for vehicle acquisitions at Metro. “The first phase is to do what we know we can reliably do with the existing technology, so we’ve identified the Metro Silver and Orange lines as a good place to begin the transition with minimal risk. Phase two will be everything else.”
Training and outreach
Prior to adding electric buses to their fleets, each of the transit agencies METRO spoke to worked with the OEMs for both operating and maintaining the buses.
“Proterra did individual training for every driver in our fleet,” says Church. “We also had our maintenance staff attend numerous training classes with Proterra staff here on site, with the company also maintaining a mechanical technician at our site the whole time we have had the buses.”
Likewise, IndyGo, in partnership with CCW, is training its workforce on maintenance and HVAC electrician skills. The agency’s training department is directly training all 300-plus bus operators on electric propulsion systems as new equipment arrives.
“Training our operators on the way the electric buses drive and on the safety features is a critical step,” says Learn.
She adds that the agency brought in all of its local first responders to show them how to tell the difference between a diesel and electric bus and what to do in the case of a thermal event. The program went over so well that first responders in other counties that aren’t even running electric buses have since asked IndyGo for the training as well.
Looking down the road toward further implementation, Learn says that IndyGo is adding a maintenance training department that will soon be up and running.
“Our focus will be not only to have annual refresher training for all aspects of maintenance, but also a more continuing education when it comes to the ever-growing technologies moving forward so that we can keep our mechanics ahead of the curve,” she says.
As for public outreach, transit agencies communicated to the communities they serve that electric buses were coming as were the many benefits that arrive with them, including zero-emissions and the promise of a cleaner environment in the long-term.
With that, they also had to communicate just how much quieter electric buses are compared to traditional diesel buses.
“We did hear stories that people at stops would be listening to music and otherwise be distracted and their bus would arrive and pull off without them knowing it was there,” says Gonzales.
On that note, in addition to marketing the new buses to their community, WRTA also worked with advocates in the sight impaired community to help get the word out about the new buses, since many rely on the sound of the buses to know they have arrived at a stop.
“That campaign was very successful and I think really helped that community be aware of the changes that come with electric buses,” says Church. “It also helped that all of our buses have automatic announcements on them, so that really provided another way to offset the engine noise and help the sight-impaired know that their bus was arriving or departing.”
Looking ahead to infrastructure
While developing charging strategies on a large scale may be complex, implementing charging stations for pilot buses is typically rather straightforward, although transit agencies do have to work with their partners closely as they move toward implementation.
One hurdle Long Beach found was that it had to upgrade its infrastructure to meet the demand of the new electric buses.
“The traditional home of Long Beach Transit was built in 1963 with all the needs of 1963 in mind, so when it came to adding the electrical infrastructure it was a big project,” explains Gonzales.
To upgrade its infrastructure, LBT teamed with its utility provider, Southern California Edison, to help problem solve.
“We were able to tap into the Edison vault catty-corner from our facility and run it underground to a corner of our facility, where we now have 10 charging units,” Gonzales says. “We also have the capacity to expand, which we are planning to do.”
LBT also teamed with its utility provider to install an inductive charging solution from WAVE near the Long Beach Convention Center, which will be inaugurated in June.
“The solution will enable our buses to charge while out on their routes, which should increase the performance of our battery-electric buses,” says Gonzales.
Meanwhile, as it begins its transition to zero-emissions, Metro has put out an RFP to find a consultant to help develop its strategy for zero-emission buses.
“They will be looking at where the easiest places will be for implementation of electric buses, as well as the areas that will take a bit longer, or that may require some technological advances first,” says Marc Manning, sr. director vehicle engineering and acquisitions for Metro.
Manning and Montes add that part of the consultants job will also be to identify the best charging technologies available to the agency as it moves into phase two. For now, the agency is working with New Flyer and BYD to develop strategies that will include both depot and in-route chargers.
“We don’t know how the technology will evolve, if one type of charging solution will prove to be more effective than the others, so we are holding off on further modifying our infrastructure at this point,” says Manning. “We are also trying to future-proof our facilities as much as possible, but since there isn’t a standard for plug-in chargers, it is hard for us to plan a full facility upgrade at this point.”
In Indianapolis, IndyGo has been working toward resilient operations even with the move to an electric fleet. Investing in renewable energy is a key strategy for the agency, but IndyGo is also identifying how to continue operations in the face of a disaster or long-term power outage.
“We have one megawatt of solar energy set up on our roof already, which offsets some of our energy costs and basically fuels all 21 of our electric buses,” says Learn.
“As we have more and more electric vehicles, we are developing facility and operational plans that will make sure we can keep service on the street,” she adds. “We are looking at emergency operations facilities that could be used as a back-up location with portable generators to keep buses charged.”
IndyGo is leveraging advances in battery range to keep capital costs down. The agency has no plans for in-route charging, but instead is developing charging solutions at the main facility, as well as back-up plans.
While those who have moved ahead aggressively are admittedly still in the learning process, they do have some sage advice for those looking to add electric buses to their fleet.
MAP OUT A PLAN
IndyGo’s Learn says a good idea is to map it all out with a pencil and paper and take into account all considerations, including your routes, fuel costs, and how your city operates, taking into account hurdles that may impact service, which for IndyGo includes the Indianapolis 500.
“There are so many options for zero emissions now than there were five years ago,” she says. “We are going through a lot of change right now at IndyGo, and the opportunities to use new technology are really exciting, but anticipating that things won’t go exactly to plan has to be recognized by everyone in the agency.”
“Clearly know what your needs are and what you are trying to do — if you are looking to do a demonstration project, make sure to manage your expectations,” Metro’s Montes says. “Everyone is going through a learning curve, so don’t expect to have the same level of service with a zero-emissions bus as with your normal in-service buses, whether they are diesel or CNG.”
Montes adds that there will initially be a big learning curve on operations and maintenance, as well as on a transit agency’s infrastructure, so agencies should methodically plan for the integration of electric buses into everyday service.
HAVE A CHAMPION
Montes and Manning also add that in addition to all the other factors involved in going electric that it’s important to have an electric bus champion within your organization.
“It’s really important because you need someone within your organization to get everybody excited about electrification,” says Manning.
“It is definitely important, because you have to have buy-in from every element within the organization,” adds Montes. “If you have any push back, it can really lead to huge issues.”