One critical issue to ZEB growth are issues with manufacturing, however, infrastructure also remains an issue.  -  Photo: METRO Magazine

One critical issue to ZEB growth are issues with manufacturing, however, infrastructure also remains an issue.

Photo: METRO Magazine

CALSTART recently released its annual “Zeroing in on ZEBs” report, which provides an updated index of newly adopted transit zero emission buses (ZEBs) funded, ordered, delivered, and/or deployed within the U.S. and Canada according to data collected through September 2023 by local, state, and federal sources.

This year’s report found the number of full-size transit ZEBs grew by 6,147 vehicles, or 12%, in the U.S. from last year, and includes more than 100 new fleets adopting ZEBs for the first time.

Additional U.S. findings included that California accounts for 32% of ZEBs nationwide and that fuel-cell electric buses (FCEBs) saw a growth of more than 75%, with 13 states reporting FCEBs among their transit fleets.

Meanwhile, Canada also saw a growth of approximately 12% from the previous count and now has a total of 976 ZEBs.

View the full report here.

METRO recently spoke with CALSTART’s National Transit Bus Program Manager Mike Hynes about this year’s “Zeroing in on ZEBs” report as well as the state of zero-emission buses overall, including how both countries will continue to grow their ZEB fleets thanks to strong federal funding, the reasons for hydrogen’s growth, and much more.

Can you give a little background on your report?

Sure, this is the sixth edition of our report. We started doing this because there’s no comprehensive dataset that tracks the adoption of zero-emission buses (ZEBs), and without that, it’s difficult to track how the industry is doing with the adoption of this technology. And when I say we, I mean collectively — the industry, stakeholders, and everyone else who is working to advance zero emissions — because it’s important to see where we’ve come from and where we’re going to, so that we can help identify gaps.

Through doing this report, one thing we’ve noticed is transit is a small community, so when you get down to it, knowledge sharing is key. So, for us to pull together a report like this to show how we’re doing collectively really helps drive the conversation toward future efforts.

METRO has a vehicle delivery report we do, which has showed slow growth in the industry, is that something CALSTART’s report found as well?

Yes, at 12 percent we saw smaller growth than we had hoped. But it does align with our thinking and what we have learned from engaging with other agencies and key stakeholders.

In the zero-emission space, it’s not just about the vehicles because there’s also the infrastructure that’s necessary to accommodate the vehicles and keep them up and running smoothly. We talk about that in the report, because if you look at some of the funding from the federal government there were millions and millions of dollars that went toward infrastructure. What we saw over the past year is it seems like agencies are using this time to dive into infrastructure projects, and once those are finished and everything is in place, we anticipate vehicle orders are going to increase. Of course, we do have challenges in the vehicle market here in the U.S. as well, but we are moving in the right direction on that end.

So again, a 12 percent increase is a bit slower than we had hoped, but it’s still a positive increase, so that’s great. One thing to point out is that we saw a 75 percent growth in hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, so there is a definitely a growing interest there, which definitely tracks with what we had been hearing over the past year.

CALSTART's Mike Hynes says fleets are growing past small pilot purchases and moving toward multi-ZEB orders.  -  Photo: MTS

CALSTART's Mike Hynes says fleets are growing past small pilot purchases and moving toward multi-ZEB orders.

Photo: MTS

Of course the possible supplier issues have been in the news as of late, but based on your feedback, how much would you say other issues are impacting growth, such as setting up the necessary infrastructure to run ZEBs?

Yes, that’s a great question. I’m not sure there is any one thing that is slowing down ZEBs adoption. The best explanation is it’s really dependent on the agency and what their plans are.

The supply chain has definitely been a challenge, but we definitely saw some improvements last year and should continue to see more this year. As I mentioned earlier, transit agencies are looking to tackle the infrastructure side and get those projects up and running so they are ready for the vehicles to start arriving. In talking to some of the OEMs on the market, they are not hurting for orders. They’ve got plenty of vehicles in the queue, if you will, so it’s all about just being able to build them and get them out on time.

Progress also depends on the area you’re talking about, as well as the individual agency and where they are at in terms of their overall plan. Take California, for example, a lot of agencies there have been focused on completing their innovative clean transit rule rollout plans, which have now all been submitted.

If you look at the industry as a whole, we have some agencies who are getting their vehicle orders in, some focusing on infrastructure, and some still just wrapping up planning, but we expect to start seeing more agencies moving toward implementation of zero-emission buses soon.

Growth is also slow with smaller vehicles; do you feel that is a function of there not being an incredible number of players in the market?

That's fair to say. The cutaway market is a little bit behind the full-size market in terms of available options. If I’m being honest, many agencies are suffering from range anxiety and are concerned with what range the cutaway vehicles on the market are getting. To help with that anxiety, the vehicle industry and other key stakeholders are working with agencies to understand what their range needs are. One thing we do see on that end is agencies assume they need a certain range, but that may not be the case. So there’s an educational piece involved.

The industry is also waiting for some suppliers to bring forward some new options. For instance, we have players like Damera, Optimal, and the electrified Ford chassis all looking to come into the market. Once they do, there is certainly going to be plenty of demand. So there just has to be a few more things that really need to fall into place until we see the cutaway, or small bus, market really take off.

Getting back to the full-size market, many in the industry have indicated that we are past the stage where agencies are buying a couple of electric buses to try them out and are instead making larger, multi-bus orders. Is that a trend you are seeing?

Yes, we are definitely seeing larger orders, which signifies we are seeing fleets dive into more wholesale adoption of the technology. I think when you look at the overall landscape, we are still seeing those bigger orders coming from agencies in larger markets like Los Angeles, New York, or San Francisco, however, we are starting to see it expand as agencies begin to partner with one another.

One thing we saw during this latest round of the FTA’s Low- and No-emissions grant program is a bigger focus on consolidated applications, where transit agencies are working with their state DOTs to develop a path forward for zero emissions. That trend is something that is really going to help the growth of zero-emission buses in the industry. If you look at last year’s Low/No applications, there are states like Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa who have worked with their state DOTs to bring multiple agencies under one umbrella to all work together.

One thing about the transit industry is it really works well together in terms of knowledge share, and so we are going to see more agencies and states begin to move toward the group procurement route rather than continue to go it alone. Working with other agencies allows them to also leverage more funding for workforce development programs and things of that nature, which will help push the industry out of the pilot phase and into larger scale adoptions.

CALSTART's annual report found hydrogen fuel-cell electric buses up 75% compared to the previous year.  -  Photo: AC Transit

CALSTART's annual report found hydrogen fuel-cell electric buses up 75% compared to the previous year.

Photo: AC Transit

Can you talk a little bit about why you think you saw such a large growth in hydrogen fuel-cell buses?

We are seeing agencies who want to ensure range and typically hydrogen promises longer ranges than electric buses, depending on the specifications. We are also seeing some agencies, like the Champaign–Urbana Mass Transit District, who have developed the necessary infrastructure to support their fuel-cell buses moving forward. There are also some agencies who transitioned to CNG looking at hydrogen instead of electric, because the infrastructure is similar so it is considered an easier leap, which makes them more comfortable.

The biggest takeaway from all of this is there are really a host of reasons agencies make the choices they make. As fuel-cell technology continues to evolve, you will see transit agencies who want to go in that direction, depending on what their individual use cases are. However, as battery technology and range improve, costs come down, and OEMs continue to innovate, we are going to see battery-electric buses continue to be a great option for transit agencies who want to continue moving in that direction.

So what are some of the hurdles in adopting hydrogen fuel-cell buses right now? Does it come down to the availability of fuel in a particular region and vehicles that are on the market?

Yes, the availability of fuel is always a concern because agencies have to figure out where they are going to get it from. That will start to change, though, as we see more hydrogen sites begin to come on line, which is something the U.S. government is making efforts to support.

In addition to getting the fuel, there is also the issue of the vehicles themselves because they are currently more expensive than battery-electric buses, so agencies have to take that into consideration when they are going to purchase them. The other issue, of course, is who can produce the vehicles.

So, it’s really a host of things that are posing hurdles for hydrogen fuel-cell adoption, but we are going to see the market improve in terms of fueling and vehicle availability. Again, it will come down to transit agencies needing to weigh all of these factors and decide whether battery-electric or hydrogen fuel cell is better for them.

Canada also saw a 12% growth in ZEBs as of September 2023.  -  Photo: TransLink

Canada also saw a 12% growth in ZEBs as of September 2023.

Photo: TransLink

Looking at Canada, do you see the ZEBs trend continuing to grow there as well?

Yes. The U.S. and Canada are similar in terms of the funding their federal governments are making available for zero-emission buses. CUTRIC, our counterparts in the North, are also doing a lot to help agencies get the technical support they need to make the transition to zero emissions.

Looking at the numbers, ZEBs usage is growing in Canada as well. One of the things we call out in the report is that, at 12 percent, we are seeing the same kind of positive growth in Canada that we are seeing here in the U.S. One interesting thing we are seeing in Canada is there have been exceptionally large bus orders in regions like Quebec, for instance, who recently ordered more than 1,000 buses. That is going to take years of production time. In fact, I’m sure these large orders are something Nova Bus had to take into consideration before its decision to close its Plattsburgh, N.Y., facility.

Large orders like the one in Quebec is something we’d like to see here in the U.S. as well. We’ve got agencies like New York MTA, Seattle’s King County Metro, and LA Metro placing large orders, and we’d certainly like to see more of that in the future. Overall, though, I feel like both nations are tracking on the same path — they both have strong federal and local support for zero emissions and there are agencies doing the planning and necessary work to make zero-emission vehicles a real part of their systems.

Finally, what is your outlook for the future of ZEBs over the next several years?

We haven’t really dug into that from a percentage standpoint, but I will say the next five years is going to be key in terms of adoption because we are at a tipping point right now. There are so many states and agencies that have done their transition planning, which is one of the positive things to come out of last year’s Low/No awards because it was required. It is really helpful for them to have that blueprint going forward, because that is going to help them get to where they ultimately want to be.

There is also going to be a lot more done this year to help small and rural agencies continue to move forward with their plans to transition to zero-emission buses. For instance, NREL recently announced their Clean Bus Planning Awards program, so that will be an option that will allow more agencies to get the technical assistance they need to make the transition.

At this point, everyone is getting the knowledge and information they need to begin the zero-emission implementation. So now we’re at the point where we’re going to start seeing agencies continue to move forward not only with adoption and the implementation of their plans, but really getting zero emissions vehicles out on the road.

The challenge will be not only continuing to support the market, but also to help suppliers get what they need to continue to produce vehicles for the industry. Coming out of the recent White House Summit, you have groups like APTA and CALSTART supporting revisions to the procurement process and streamlining funding and all the other necessary mechanisms the agencies and OEMs need to produce more vehicles. That support is going to be vital in allowing us to continue to move forward with zero-emission buses both in the short and long term.

About the author
Alex Roman

Alex Roman

Executive Editor

Alex Roman is Executive Editor of METRO Magazine — the only magazine serving the public transit and motorcoach industries for more than 100 years.

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