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Electric buses in North America: Recent deployments, initiatives and developments [free access]

November 1, 2018

The North American electric bus market is still in its infancy and is characterised by pilot projects and small-scale deployments. In Canada, the cities of Montréal, Vancouver and Toronto have made the biggest strides in recent times to adopt electric buses. In the United States (US), in addition to major metropolises, smaller cities like Chattanooga and Baton Rouge have also played a key role in testing and deploying electric buses.

 

Over the last few years, the federal governments of both the countries have announced initiatives and funding schemes to encourage transit agencies to adopt zero-emission buses or to convert their fleet into an electric fleet as part of broader plans to reduce carbon emissions.

 

Funding and policy push

 

United States: The federal government provides funds through the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA’s) Low or No Emission (Low-No) Vehicle Program, which is a competitive grant that provides funds to states and local transit agencies to lease or procure zero-emission and low-emission transit buses and supporting infrastructure. The overarching goal of the programme is to reduce carbon emissions and dependence on diesel buses for mass transit.

 

Projects eligible to receive these funds include construction of facilities to accommodate low or no emission buses, procurement of electric buses, charging stations and acquiring power sources. Funding is allocated to projects on a competitive basis, from proposals submitted to FTA in response to a Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO).

 

Since its inception in 2016, the Low-No Program has awarded a total of USD194.5 million in funds for projects across the country. Under the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, USD55 million per year is available in programme funds till fiscal year 2020. 

 

In August 2018, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) announced plans to allocate USD84.5 million in Low or No Emission Vehicle Program grants to 52 projects across 41 states. The funds will be used for the procurement of battery and hybrid electric buses as well as advanced propulsion technologies.

 

Table 1 provides details of the top five recipients of the FTA’s Low-No funding in August 2018.

 

Table 1: Top five recipients of Low-No funding in August 2018

State

Project sponsor

Project description

Funding amount (USD million)

California 

California DOT

Procure battery electric buses and charging stations for Arvin, CA

2.29

Illinois

Chicago Transit Authority

Procure electric buses and chargers with on-route charging capabilities

2.29

Kentucky

Transit Authority of Lexington

Procure electric buses

2.29

Maine

City of Rochester

Replacement of aging buses with battery electric buses

2.29

Utah

Utah DOT

Procurement of battery electric vehicles and charges

2.29

Source: Federal Transit Administration

 

In addition to Low-No, the federal government’s Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) Improvement Program allocates USD2 billion per year till fiscal year 2020 to support projects that reduce air pollution including procurement of zero-emission buses. For instance, Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) will use funding from this programme to purchase 10 electric buses and two charging stations.

 

Canada: The provincial government of Ontario released its five-year Climate Change Action Plan in 2016. The plan includes initiatives like extending the rebate programme for leasing or buying electric vehicles to 2020, establishing a four-year free overnight electric vehicle charging programme and investing in electric vehicle charging stations in many public places.  

 

Big developments in 2018

 

In 2018, transit agencies took several initiatives ranging from testing to deployment of electric buses to launch of pilot programmes. Table 2 highlights the recent electric bus deployments and pilot programmes launched by transit agencies over the last one year.

 

Table 2: Key initiatives in 2018

Transit agency

Electric bus supplier

Month and year

Description

Canada 

South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority (TransLink)

NA

April 2018

The Canadian Urban Transit Research & Innovation Consortium (CUTRIC) launched Phase I of the Pan-Canadian Electric Bus Demonstration and Integration Trial in collaboration with TransLink. The CAD40-million programme featured testing of 18 standardised and interoperable electric buses on five routes across three cities. Phase II of the project launched in October 2018 focuses on developing new funding models to help transit agencies finance, operate and maintain electrified infrastructure.

T3 Transit

New Flyer

March 2018

T3 Transit deployed the electric bus supplied by New Flyer on Route 1 University Avenue in the city of Charlottetown.

United States

Indianapolis Public Transportation Corporation (IndyGo)

BYD

September 2018

IndyGo deployed the first of 13 battery-electric buses supplied by BYD on the Red Line bus rapid transit (BRT) corridor.

Chattanooga Regional Transportation Authority (CARTA)

BYD

August 2018

CARTA announced plans to deploy three K9 electric buses by BYD.

Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA)

Proterra

June 2018

VTA procured five battery-powered electric buses from Proterra and launched a pilot electric bus charging system.

Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA)

Proterra

April 2018

The D.C. Circulator bus system deployed 14 battery-electric Catalyst E2 buses.

SunLine Transit

US Hybrid Corporation and BAE Systems

February 2018

SunLine Transit deployed the zero-emission, fuel-cell electric bus supplied by US Hybrid.

New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA)

Proterra and New Flyer

January 2018

New York MTA launched a three-year pilot programme with 10 fully electric buses supplied by Proterra and New Flyer (five each).

*NA – Not available

Source: Global Mass Transit Research

 

Market dominated by few players

 

The electric bus market in North America is dominated by four main suppliers – US-based New Flyer, Proterra and Nova Bus, and China-based Build Your Dreams (BYD). Of these, BYD secured the maximum number of contracts in 2018. Table 3 highlights key contracts awarded for procurement of electric buses in 2018.

 

Table 3: Electric bus procurement contracts awarded in 2018

Transit agency

Electric bus

 supplier

Number of buses to be supplied

Date of contract award

Bus model

Canada

South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority (TransLink)

Nova Bus

2

October 2018

LFSe

New Flyer

2

September 2018

Xcelsior CHARGE

WESTCOAST Sightseeing

BYD

90

October 2018

NA

Reseau de Transport de Longueuil (RTL)

BYD

5

August 2018

NA

Société de transport de Montréal (STM)

New Flyer

40

August 2018

Xcelsior CHARGE

BYD

4

August 2018

NA

Société de transport de Laval (STL)

New Flyer

10

August 2018

Xcelsior CHARGE

Toronto Transit Commission (TTC)

BYD

10

July 2018

NA

New Flyer

10

June 2018

Xcelsior

Proterra

10

June 2018

Catalyst E2

United States

Utah Transit Authority (UTA)

New Flyer

5

September 2018

Xcelsior CHARGE

Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA)

BYD

6

July 2018

4 K9S units and 2 K7 units

Chicago Transit Authority (CTA)

Proterra

20

June 2018

NA

Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA)

New Flyer

10

April 2018

Xcelsior

Los Angeles Board of Airport Commissioners

BYD

20

April 2018

NA

Capital Area Transit System (CATS)

BYD

3

March 2018

NA

*NA - Not available

Source: Global Mass Transit Research

 

Ambitious plans

 

Ten US states: In July 2018, 10 US states namely, Arizona, California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Georgia, Wisconsin, Louisiana, Illinois and Ohio unveiled plans to procure all-electric school, transit and shuttle buses through the USD400 million funding available from the Volkswagen emissions settlement.

 

Sixteen cities in California, US: In January 2018, mayors of 16 cities in California expressed their support for a state proposal that would require all transit fleet in California to be 100 per cent electric by 2029.

 

King County, US: In January 2017, King County Metro stated that it would purchase 120 electric buses by 2020. Starting 2020, it will purchase only zero-emission buses and the transition to a zero-emission fleet could be completed as early as 2034, or by 2040 at the latest.

 

Los Angeles County: In July 2017, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced that its transit fleet would be emission-free by 2030, requiring at least 2,300 electric buses. It also approved the purchase of 95 new electric buses.

 

New York City, US: The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) unveiled the NYC Transit Bus Plan in April 2018, which highlights the agency’s plan to move to an all-electric bus fleet by 2040.

 

Portland Metropolitan Area, US: In September 2018, the Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon’s Board of Directors approved a USD500 million plan to convert its entire fleet of 658 buses to a non-diesel fleet by 2040. As part of the plan, TriMet will allocate USD53 million generated from the Keep Oregon Moving Act for the procurement 60 battery-electric buses.

 

Ontario, Canada: In April 2018, Ontario announced plans to procure and test 14 battery-electric buses in Brampton and York in 2019.  

 

Challenges

 

Although electric buses are becoming more common on North American roads, there are still several challenges when it comes to their deployment en masse. An electric bus on an average is 1.5 times more expensive than a conventional diesel-powered bus. A standard 12.2-metre (40-foot) electric bus can cost a transit agency USD750,000 while a diesel bus can be procured for USD435,000.

 

Transit agencies, especially in the US, also face the challenge of steadily declining public transit ridership. Between 2005 and 2017, bus ridership declined by 5 per cent across the US.

 

Extreme weather conditions pose additional challenges for electric bus operations. Buses tested in Phoenix in 2016 were unable to operate beyond 145 km/hour in the summer heat, less than two-thirds its advertised speed, due to excessive power consumption by the air conditioning system.

 

Given the high costs, the relatively untested nature of the technology and a declining ridership base, transit agencies are reluctant to commit to bulk purchases of electric buses, opting instead to wait until the technology becomes more cost effective and reliable.

 

A final word

 

In recent times, there has been an increased push from the federal and state/provincial governments of both Canada and the US to encourage the adoption of electric buses for mass transit.

 

As of December 2017, there were a total of 65,000 public buses operating in the United States, out of which only 300 (0.46 per cent) were electric. This is expected to increase in the coming years as the technology and infrastructure required to deploy electric buses becomes more easily accessible at lower costs. CALSTART, a California-based non-profit organisation promoting clean transportation estimates that 50-60 per cent of all new buses will be zero-emissions models by 2030. To achieve that, there needs to be greater synchronisation of efforts among various levels of government, transit agencies and private players.