With major cities across the U.S. having made the decision to shift to all-electric bus fleets, the question is no longer whether the transition to quiet, clean urban mass transit will occur: It’s already happening.
Roughly 5,000 public transit buses are purchased each year in the U.S. With more than 60 agencies demonstrating or deploying electric buses — 1,000 already are on order, with active requests for proposals for hundreds more — the number of fossil-fueled vehicles is about to shrink dramatically.
The benefits are far-reaching: new options that include electric- and hydrogen-powered buses will provide cleaner air and a better experience for passengers and drivers, while supporting the imperative to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Combustion engines contribute heavily to pollution in the urban environment. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, transportation accounts for more than one-quarter of the nation’s GHG emissions and is overtaking the power sector as the top GHG contributor as more renewables come online. Removing fossil fuels from mass transit will go far in reducing that carbon footprint, making electrification of mass transportation a top priority for city officials and utilities.
But as EV use continues to grow and more high-power capacity is needed, questions remain: What are the remaining roadblocks? What role will municipalities and transit agencies play in the shift from diesel to electric? Who will develop the necessary infrastructure to support the charging of EV fleets and can they keep up with the growth?
Benefits Clear, funding is not
Although the benefits are strong, cost concerns continue to tamp down enthusiasm over fleet EVs. When industry leaders were surveyed on the main barriers preventing the adoption of electric city bus systems, more than one-half of respondents said they see the cost of fleet investment as the biggest obstacle, according to Black & Veatch’s “2018 Strategic Directions: Electric Report survey” (Figure 1).
Figure 1. What are the main barriers keeping your community from adopting an electric city bus system? (Select all that apply)
The report, part of an annual series that surveys utility, municipal, commercial, and community stakeholders, also found that 42% of respondents are concerned over the cost of the charging infrastructure necessary to support fleet needs.
That said, federal grants — identified by the majority of respondents as the most likely approach to fund an all-electric transit system — appear to offer some salvation. The U.S. government is doing its part to support the drive to zero-emissions transit, providing tens of millions in “No/Low-Emission” grants for vehicles and supporting infrastructure. Other financing approaches include innovative public-private partnerships, federal loan programs and, to a lesser extent, local investment (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Which of the following methods would most likely be used to fund an all-electric transit system in your area? (Select all that apply)
While fleet EVs can command high upfront capital investment, it’s critical to note electric buses have lower maintenance costs than their diesel or hybrid counterparts. Much of this is due to the benefits of electric drive’s regenerative braking, which virtually eliminates brake pad replacement and electric motors that don’t require costly engine rebuilds that plague their internal combustion engine counterparts.
And as with any new technology gradually facing mainstream acceptance, costs continue to come down. Not that long ago, electric buses cost around $1 million each; today, this cost has decreased to approximately $750,000. With total lifetime cost of ownership already on par, we expect to see upfront cost parity — driven by economies of scale as demand and production volume increases — just a few years away.
Ensuring Available Charging
Previously, battery capacity was a limiting factor in the widespread adoption of fleet EVs. But battery and vehicle technologies continue to advance, with some vehicle batteries already smashing the 200-mile-per-charge barrier. Now one of the main challenges to hastening broader EV adoption lies in changing customer perception of miles traveled, range, and reliability.
With battery technologies ready for demanding transit duty cycles, attention is now focused more heavily on having the widespread availability to EV infrastructure. Electrified mass transit has significant charging demands, and cities must determine how to scale charging infrastructure and manage increased electric loads.
Currently, grid modernization efforts and managed charging top the list of strategies that utilities will use to manage the additional load demand on the grid (Figure 3).
But enabling a robust EV charging infrastructure for vehicles requires cross-cutting industry, municipal, and utility partnerships. Public transit agencies and utilities must develop infrastructure roadmaps to guide investment from pilot studies through mass deployment of on-route and depot charging scenarios to match their unique system and grid requirements. The battery charging demands of large buses — and fleets of those buses — will create substantial loads for the grid that will necessitate distribution grid upgrades.
Figure 3. How do you plan to manage the additional load demand on the grid caused by EV adoption? (Select all that apply)
These capital-intensive projects, such as new feeders, medium voltage service delivery, and substation upgrades, require careful coordination with the host utility and can have lead times measured in years to engineer, permit, and construct. Utilities and cities should begin preparations now to design, finance, and manage this new infrastructure.
Working Towards the Future
Improvements in battery technology, longer battery ranges, lower costs, and increasing consumer confidence continue to encourage a significant increase in EV sales in the U.S. For transit providers and the communities they serve, what resembles exponential growth in adoption presents new challenges, requiring them to proactively and creatively engage now.
As the preference for EVs — from passenger cars to metro buses and enterprise fleets — continues to grow, expect to see greater pursuit and acceptance of electrified mass transit and the efficient, environment-friendly transportation solutions it provides.
Paul Stith is Director of Strategy & Innovation for Black & Veatch’s Transformative Technologies business.