Why Are We Still Waiting for Electric Buses?

Photo:  Union of Concerned Scientists
Photo: Union of Concerned Scientists

SB Donation NYC header 2There are 300,000 battery powered electric buses in the world.

Only 1,600 are in the United States. China has 50 times that number.

Electric buses offer potentially big benefits for cities: Cleaner air, quieter neighborhoods, efficiency that saves $130,000 over the bus’s lifetime, and, of course, helping cities achieve zero carbon transportation.

But America remains on the sidelines.

What’s going on?

The nation is in the midst of a long-overdue attempt to bring its bus fleets from the 1940s to the 21st century. Even enthusiastic transit agencies are struggling, and some transit systems are only slowly waking up and smelling the electrons.

Albuquerque provides a disheartening example. The city’s bus rapid transit system — ART — suffered a major blow this month when 15 specially made electric buses had to be returned to the manufacturer, the Chinese firm Build Your Dreams, the world’s largest supplier of electric buses.

There were a number of design problems. But most notable was the range. The buses were only traveling 177 miles between charges. BYD had promised 250, Mayor Tim Keller told the Albuquerque Journal. The issue will delay the project for as much as 18 months.

There have been similar problems with buses from the same manufacturer in Los Angeles. “BYD’s electric buses are contending with a record of poor performance and mechanical problems,” the Los Angeles Times wrote in a May expose. L.A. Metro pulled five buses out of circulation, citing similar issues as Albuquerque. They weren’t reliable after 100 miles and were running well below the promised range, sometimes as little as 78 miles before charging, the Times reported.

Issues with electric buses have fueled attacks from Koch brothers-linked political operatives, which are notorious defenders of fossil fuel interests. But transit agencies see the future and are starting to get on board. Foothill Transit, serving Los Angeles’ San Gabriel Valley, operates 17 electric buses from Proterra and recently ordered 13 more. Nearby Antelope Valley purchased 34 electric buses from the Chinese company Build Your Dreams this year. Next year it plans to go 100 percent electric with its 70+ buses.

Park City, Utah, went all-electric for its six buses last year. Martha’s Vineyard purchased a fleet of five electric buses this summer. The agency plans to double the number of e-buses in operation next year.

Los Angeles Metro has committed to going 100 percent electric by 2030. Metro has budgeted $128 million to purchase 125 electric buses from New Flyer, an Alabama-based company. It plans to purchase another 60 from BYD for $48 million. Those will go toward making Metro’s Orange and Silver bus rapid transit lines electric beginning in 2020 and 2021.

New York City, meanwhile, is testing 10 buses right now, five from the American firm Proterra and five from New Flyer. Chicago won a grant this year to purchase 30 electric buses from Proterra, which is headquartered in Silicon Valley but has manufacturing plants in L.A. and South Carolina. Proterra has been rapidly expanding. It has reportedly been overwhelmed with orders.

The success stories

Leading experts tell Streetsblog, transit agencies should not give up.

Macy Neshati, executive director of Antelope Valley Transit said his agency hasn’t experienced any of the problems with its 34 BYD buses that L.A. and Albuquerque did.

They are running “great,” he told Streetsblog. “The buses are giving us the range that was advertised to us.”

That’s about 150 miles between charging.

The agency planned its routes with small “opportunity charging stations” in order to minimize problems, he said. The agency plans to go fully electric for its 70-plus bus fleet next year.

Lithium batteries have in wider use vehicles since about 2010, according to Hanjiro Ambrose, a Ph.D candidate at U.C. Davis who specialized in sustainable transportation. But they weren’t cost effective for e-buses until about two or three years ago, when the price of lithium batteries came down.

“Few years ago, they were a few thousand dollars per kilowatt-hour,” he said. “Now the cost of that battery is $100 to $200 per kilowatt-hour.”

Graph: Union of Concerned Scientists
Graph: Union of Concerned Scientists

The challenges

The United States’ slow adoption relative to China is the result of both policy and institutional inertia, says Ambrose.

“The types of negative impacts of a conventional bus aren’t necessarily priced — the noise and the asthma it creates,” he said. “There hasn’t been a lot of policy in place to push the adoption of electric buses [in the U.S.] like there is in China.”

Meanwhile, many transit agencies in the U.S. have to follow funding formulas from the Federal Transit Administration — and these rules typically favor cost-efficiency in the moment over long-term innovation.

“Those funding mechanisms haven’t been aligned with trying to stimulate policy change,” he said. “The cheapest technology available isn’t usually the newest technology available.”

U.S agencies may also have maintenance people who are uncomfortable with the transition to a new technology. At minimum it requires some new training.

But Antelope Valley CEO Neshati says transition has not been too difficult for his maintenance staff.

The agency had to do some diagnostic training and some high-voltage training — there are some safety risks associated with that. “It’s ongoing” he said. But while the buses have no engine, no transmission and no drivetrain, in a lot of other ways, they’re the same as diesels.

At Chicago’s CTA said its maintenance staff will receive some additional training from in-house staff. But CTA spokesperson Jon Kaplan told Streetsblog that the agency expects every electric bus to save $237,000 over its lifetime because e-buses have 30 percent fewer parts, no exhaust systems and do not require oil and other fluid changes.

Meanwhile, China’s large e-bus penetration has already had an impact on the global oil market, saving 233,000 barrels of oil in 2018 alone. Eventually e-buses could save 7.3 million barrels of oil a day, reports Eco Watch. (That’s still a small fraction of overall annual global oil sales, which is about 86 million barrels a day.)

Jimmy O’Dea, a vehicles expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the quality of electric buses is rapidly improving and more and more manufacturers are moving into the market. American transit agencies have a lot of options.

“The technology is there from my perspective,” he said “There are 14 different manufacturers making everything from electric shuttle buses to electric double-decker buses. Nominal bus range has gone from roughly 150 miles a few years ago to over 250 miles today.”

Tim Lipman, a Berkeley research scientist who specializes in sustainable transportation, mostly agreed. But he cautioned the climate and the driver and the terrain — hilly? or flat? — still make a difference.

“The range is an issue,” Lipman said. “If it’s really hot or cold you’re going to use more energy.”

Lipman and his team have been working with California transit agencies to help with the conversion. Part of what Lipman and Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center do is to help understand how bus drivers can conserve and maximize energy (battery-powered e-buses use regenerative braking which captures and stores some of the kinetic energy lost when a vehicle brakes).

Lipman said he expects the range issue to improve rapidly. But it’s partly dependent on market forces. Without significant orders for electric buses, manufacturers can’t step in to meet the need. Transit agencies tend to be somewhat risk averse.

“There is a curve there,” he said. “You can’t really improve a product until you see how it performs in the real world. That’s just a natural part of the process.”

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  • Kieran

    Basically I was thinkin the same thing…It’s probably a bot post. I wouldn’t mind some of those trolleybuses coming to San Francisco.

  • Max Wyss

    Yeah, the design is pretty cool. I don’t know whether Solaris actually has an US office (and even less so about a factory).

    OTOH, I am still amazed how a small family-owned business in Poland could become a serious player in the market within such a short time. And the quality of their products has been pretty good from the beginning.

    … and if not Solaris, why not Hess or vanHool?

  • TakeFive

    Depends on the bus. How ’bout taking one to the ski slopes?

  • TakeFive

    Thanks; I had not seen that Metro piece. I knew BYD’s buses were slow in coming and wasn’t aware yet of how they were performing.

  • Kieran

    They probably have a knack for the business if anything. I’ll look into Solaris. Speaking of Van Hool, AC Transit(they are a transit company in the eastern Bay Area) has some Van Hool buses which are pretty good and smooth to ride in.

  • Kieran

    Interesting…I’mma research into Proterra…Now, you need to take a look at this fascinating video below. The longest trolleybus route on the planet’s in Russia. In Crimea, between the capital of Simferopol and Yalta, it passes through the mountains. Its route is 86 kilometers/53 miles long from Simferopol to Yalta. The highest elevation it reaches in the mountains is 2,467 feet or 752 meters.

  • Vooch

    Dude – my Escalade is almost as big as a Trolleybus.

  • LinuxGuy

    Pennsylvania has seen a boom with natural gas. There were a few issues at first, but most seem resolved now. There is no free ride with any fuel source. Alternative energy just cannot meet our current needs and has it’s own pluses and minuses.

  • David

    I have come across nothing to suggest that electric bus depreciation is longer (15+ years) compared to the 12-year (not 10) depreciation of diesel buses. Also, the technology has not been around long enough to know if an electric bus can last 10, 12, 15, 18, or 33 years. This post is a complete fabrication, or you are mixing up trolley buses and electric battery buses. They aren’t the same thing at all.

  • Chris B

    And the gravitational potential energy, like those SLC routes up to the ski areas…

  • Max Wyss

    Only when converted into kinetic energy. Depending on the circuitry, 25 to 60 percent (or so) of increase of potential energy can be recuperated (at least that…).

  • Chris B

    ?

    You can regenerate going down a hill even if your speed doesn’t change. Since it’s partly a matter of semantics, it’s not really wrong to view it as potential energy -> kinetic energy for an infinitessimal amount of time -> regeneration. But that is a needlessly complex way to look at it and physicists certainly never do so…

    Anyway, the point is that eBuses may be particularly good for hilly routes as long as they have enough oomph to handle the uphills (which apparently the early BYD buses simply didn’t). You use a lot of energy going uphill, which is true for a diesel bus as well. But on the downhill, you not only don’t use any energy, you get like half of the energy expended back in your tank.

    With longer flat routes, most of the energy goes into fighting air resistance and rolling resistance. In that case, the fundamental improvements from electrification are big because it’s inherently better and cheaper.

    But iIt may be that hilly routes are actually the ones we should electrify first, since the energy savings are even more dramatic!

  • Max Wyss

    I fully agree with the last paragraph.

    I’d just edit it a little bit: we should electrify first, with overhead wires…

  • Chris B

    There is that one long overhead electrified route in Crimea, but longer distances in rural areas only very rarely have wires overhead. I’m not sure exactly why that is, but it’s a plausible guess that people don’t like how it looks in otherwise relatively undeveloped areas. In a city, the wires are just one more small thing in a heavily built environment, so they’re less noticeable (but still easy to see and not totally beautiful). But they’re also cheaper to install because you can generally anchor them from all the buildings.

    If you do it in a rural area, you have to build all the structures to support the overhead wires, so it’s actually (potentially a lot) more expensive per mile and you typically have less total traffic. So it can be a harder sell. And good luck convincing the rich people who live in the mountains near ski resorts to allow that sort of overhead wire.

    Luckily, we don’t need any of that because batteries have been good enough for several years. Since the buses are already cheaper over their lifecycle, any further improvements are icing on the cake, but don’t change the fundamental situation which is favorable for good buses like Proterra’s.

    The interesting thing is just that the marketing department may have slightly misaimed in not focusing on mountain routes initially.

    And do you have a quibble with the clarification of my first paragraph?

  • disqus_ZKO7eYkek5 5+

  • David Ng

    Non-mention of Denver’s fleet of 36 isn’t the worse. Seattle’s 159 electric buses and San Francisco’s 273 electric buses are normally not mentioned and get disregarded by the media when it comes to covering electric buses in the U.S. Now to me, that’s quite a shame on the media.

  • David Ng

    As a lifelong San Franciscan who knew SF Muni as a passenger for decades, I wouldn’t be surprise of SFMTA neglects to test battery-electrics with a crashload of passengers (80+ on 40′ and 110+ on 60′) up a steep hill (i.e. any of the Richmond express lines up Nob Hill during PM rush) before making a wise decision to the favor of passengers’ service needs.

  • Kieran

    I hope they are tested on the Richmond Ax/Bx lines as you mentioned. I’d also implore them to test capacity-filled buses on the 1 California say, westbound on the Sacramento hill approaching Mason st and the hill on Castro headed north toward 22nd st on the 24 Divisadero line for starters.

    I also hope that after running those tests Muni actually decides NOT to have battery-powered buses in the city and instead simply realizes that converting all the motorcoach routes that don’t use highways to trolleycoach operation is a much smarter idea given the countless hills of San Francisco and the Hetch Hetchy Dam giving the city the electricity to support all these trolleycoach lines to begin with..

    For example, with Muni converting the 7 Haight-Noriega, 29 Sunset, 43 Masonic, 9 San Bruno, 44 O’Shaughnessy, 19 Polk, 10 Townsend, 48 Quintara/24th st, along with reconverting the 47 Van Ness to trolleycoach operation that’d be a great start.

    It should then be followed by making the 52 Excelsior a trolleyocach and extending its southern terminal to the City College loop where the 49, 8/8Bx currently terminate at. Its new northern terminal can be shared with the 66 Quintara at 9th ave just off Judah.The expanded trolleyoach 52 Excelsior would take Naples to Geneva to get to City College and in the north it’d simply take 7th ave north to Judah, turn left on Judah and then left again on 9th ave.

    Lastly the minibus routes which go in especially hilly areas notably on the 36, 39 and 37, would be prime for trolleybus conversion due to the plethora of hills they encounter.

  • Carole Fincher

    Will these electric buses solve the problem of buses not showing up on time and just not showing up at all in Memphis? Today I was talking to a McDonald’s employee whose bus did not show up which would have taken her from Cleveland out to White Station to the McDonald’s where she likes working. It was 27 degrees outside. She says this happens a lot. Isn’t Memphis’s bus problem been because the city did not have enough white patrons to force them to get the buses?

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