Industry professionals provided insight into how their respective companies are handling alternative fuels in their fleets and how they are finding the best alternative fuel options in METRO’s recent webinar, but they recognize it comes with challenges.
The webinar “Finding the Best Alternative Fuel Options for Your Transit Fleet,” was moderated by METRO Magazine Executive Editor Alex Roman.
L.A. Metro’s Path to Alternative Fuel
John Drayton, national lead, Zero Emission Mobility, for Burns Engineering, pulled from his experience at the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (L.A. Metro) to discuss the agency’s alternative fuel journey.
With more than 30 years of experience in the industry, Drayton provided a look at the history of alternative fuels.
“In the late 1980s, L.A. Metro started piloting CNG and methanol for buses,” Drayton said. “They bought their first fleet of 300 methanol buses in 1989 and ran methanol for about 10 years. They added a CNG fleet when that technology matured in about 1995 and then got into CNG partnerships that would help them accelerate the rate they could put CNG buses out there.”
L.A. Metro adopted a zero-emission policy or alternative fuel policy in 1992 to 1993.
The California Air Resources Board (CARB) adopted a zero-emission policy in 2018, which was initially just for transit buses, and stated that they'd all have to be zero-emission by 2035.
CARB expanded that and it now covers trucking, shuttle buses, and other sectors.
As for the future of alternative fuels, Drayton highlighted two technologies for zero-emission vehicles: hydrogen ran through a fuel cell and battery-electric vehicles that are run based on an electric charge.
“Hydrogen and battery-electric do different things, and there's often going to be a better fit. Large fleets are likely to see a blended mix of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles and battery-electric vehicles,” Drayton said. “Burns tends to get into both of these projects and help clients look at the tradeoffs between hydrogen and battery-electric.”
CATA’s Propane Initiatives
Propane was another alternative fuel option discussed by Tim Geibel, executive director for Pa.’s Crawford Area Transportation Authority (CATA).
CATA currently operates 11 fixed routes and offers door-to-door paratransit services throughout its 1,700-mile territory.
The agency adopted a strategic business plan in 2018 that envisioned a future where people had access to affordable and sustainable mobility options.
“We accomplished a lot in that first strategic plan,” Geibel said. “We updated that plan in 2022, and we wanted to take a strong look at redefining mobility and also pursuing alternative fuel infrastructure from not just an efficiency standpoint, but also a climate action standpoint.”
CATA’s focus on propane began in 2019 after it applied for and received a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to pay for the incremental cost increase for the conversion of propane for nine paratransit vehicles in its fleet.
“When we made the selection for propane as our fuel of choice for our paratransit system, some of the things that factored into that decision was we wanted to control our fueling costs,” Geibel said.
The capital outlay for the agency’s first propane fueling station in Meadville, Pa., was less than $35,000.
“We've been in propane for about three years now with a number of vehicles, and we've seen no noticeable performance variations versus gasoline engines as far as range and increased maintenance costs,” Geibel said.
CATA now has 25% of its fleet operating on propane, and with another delivery of vehicles coming in early 2024, 50% of its fleet will operate on propane.
He added that CATA is estimating it is saving almost $12,500 per vehicle per year in fuel cost savings.
CapMetro, Foothill Recognizes the Challenges in Transitioning to Alt-Fuel
David Carr, director of the Zero-Emission Vehicle Program for Austin, Texas’ Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority (CapMetro), offered the same ideas to implement alternative fuels in an agency’s fleet, but he also took a look at the challenges agencies can face during the process.
CapMetro has had 12 electric buses in service since 2020. The agency has a goal to be 100% carbon neutral by 2040.
Carr said there are multiple factors to consider before incorporating alternative fuels, such as infrastructure, training, and finding an OEM partner.
“If your staff is willing to go after those challenges, you need to consider the other alternatives,” Carr said. “Battery-electrics aren't going to be the only answer. Hydrogen, while it may not be ready today, will be ready soon. You have to be prepared for that. And then in bridge technology like hybrids, you may not be able to do full battery-electric, but there could be other alternatives you can plug in until you're ready to go in that direction.”
Carr warns agencies looking to move into the battery-electric area to focus on the cost of energy and how it's delivered.
“Think about the workforce development, the utilities to start managing your power, integrating with a building management system or rail system,” Carr said. “It becomes more complex for us as we move into this larger transportation system.”
Roland Cordero, director of Maintenance and Vehicle Technology for Foothill Transit, further explained the challenges agencies will face during the alternative fuel process.
Foothill Transit provides fixed-route service in the San Gabriel Valley and a commuter route to downtown L.A.
Foothill Transit’s first two double-deck battery-electric buses were deployed into service in 2020. Last year, the Federal Transit Administration procured 33 fuel-cell electric buses.
Those buses didn't meet the service profiles required on Foothill Transit’s system.
The agency then installed overhead chargers to extend the range of the 40-foot, 440-kilowatt battery pack on which the buses operated.
To charge 19 battery-electric buses during downtime at the bus yard in 2018, the agency installed 13 plug-in overhead chargers at the Arcadia and Irwindale yards. The agency would charge these buses during off-peak and midday periods.
The agency noticed the limited range of the battery-electric buses did not meet some of the requirements beyond 150 miles. Charging battery-electric buses can take up to four hours depending on their state of charge and return to the bus yard.
“Operating battery-electric buses required changing some of the operational procedures such as monitoring bus performance in route to ensure that they meet the route service profile charging system,” Cordero said. “The high technology parts on the fleet are also expensive as well.”
Other factors also include that 60% of bus routes can only be electrified, and there are impacts of the charging process for charging buses.
“Fuel-cell electric buses are more resilient in terms of availability, especially during emergency situations,” Cordero said. “There are two roads to zero emissions and I don't want to dispel the application for battery-electric buses because they can be practical for some transit applications. Our current approach is to test the viability of fuel-cell electric buses in our operations.”
Foothill Transit’s executive board recently authorized the procurement of 19 additional fuel-cell electric buses. Those buses are expected to have a range of up to 100 miles on a single field.
“Your California transit agencies are faced with transitioning to a zero-emission fleet by 2040,” Cordero said. “Transition requires large capital investments in the fleet and charging the fueling systems. A move to zero emissions will require investments in developing the current workforce to understand this new technology. Technicians need to be fully trained in order to maintain the fleet.”