The benefits of electric buses come from reduced emissions and reduced cost of ownership over the long term. BAE

The benefits of electric buses come from reduced emissions and reduced cost of ownership over the long term.


The adoption of electric buses, mainly by municipal governments, has accelerated in recent years, increasing more than 80-fold between 2011 and 2017. But cities still have a long way to go. Investment in electric buses and other low-carbon technologies needs to double over the next two decades to keep global warming below safe thresholds, as identified by the IPCC.

Reaching this goal will require overcoming specific barriers and encouraging key enabling factors, according to new research from WRI, which examined real-world experiences from 16 cities that have attempted to adopt electric buses to greater and lesser degrees of success.

Two sister reports from WRI, Barriers to Adopting Electric Buses and How to Enable Electric Bus Adoption in Cities Worldwide, break down lessons learned in this rapidly evolving field and provide step-by-step guidance on how to achieve electric bus adoption targets using concrete examples.

Chinese cities account for 99% of electric buses on the road today. China’s pioneering position in the field has yielded valuable insights. In just five years, Shenzhen went from needing two electric buses to secure the service quality of one diesel bus to matching service quality one to one. Today, the city operates the largest 100% electric bus fleet in the world, with more than 16,000 vehicles.

Electric buses typically cost two or three times more than conventional diesel buses. The benefits come from reduced emissions and reduced cost of ownership over the long term.

  • In the case of Izmir, Turkey, the operating costs for 20 electric buses led to an 84% reduction in fuel costs and a 60% reduction in total maintenance costs relative to conventional buses.
  • Izmir’s usage of a solar power plant to provide electricity to charge the buses has resulted in an annual avoidance of around 420 tons of CO2 emissions.

The reports define a total of nine steps to be taken by stakeholders interested in moving toward full electric bus adoption. The first five steps cover initial preparation and planning, and the next four steps address how to scale up to reach mass adoption.

Financing is the main barrier to success.

  • Formalizing and implementing customized procurement plans that are more suited to the special characteristics of electric buses, as well as new financial instruments to diversify and reallocate costs and risks, have offered promising results in places like Santiago, Chile, which leads Latin America in electric bus adoption.

Lesser known issues encountered by early adopters include access to land and adequate electrical supply.

  • Planners in Cape Town, South Africa, for example, found charging infrastructure and new parking schematics required bus depots be up to 40% larger to accommodate charging infrastructure and bigger vehicles.
  • Transit officials in Philadelphia found that existing electric charging capacity covered only about 7% of their bus fleet.
  • Very few cities and national governments have planned for the massive electricity grid upgrades that will be needed. In Zhengzhou, China, electric vehicles, including electric buses, are projected to comprise 36% of the city’s total electricity load by 2020.

The reports emphasize that the top issue for officials to consider first is the scale of their electric bus projects.

  • Cities at the early adoption stages should plan for what’s feasible and take concrete initial actions, like structured yet flexible pilot programs. 
  • Cities aiming to scale up should formalize and implement long-term plans regarding infrastructure and procurement, including cost-benefit analyses and actionable, time-bound targets.  

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