With transportation being one of the most critical areas to address in order to fight climate change, buying electric cars for personal transportation is not the only clean transportation option available. On top of the natural benefits that taking public transportation instead of driving has on reducing personal carbon footprints, the largest cities across the United States have been making headlines recently with commitments to convert their fleets of buses to all-electric and replace those run on petroleum products.
The vast majority of the world’s buses have always been run on diesel fuel, which the U.S. Energy Information Administration notes “produces many harmful emissions when it is burned, and diesel-fueled vehicles are major sources of harmful pollutants such as ground-level ozone and particulate matter.” However, the past decade of technological progress, not to mention awareness on the social and economic value of electric-powered vehicles, has brought about the potential for electric vehicles (EVs) to truly disrupt the public transit space.
The benefits of electric buses are immense, though the challenges are still significant. These competing forces will dictate how the future of public support and government implementation in electric buses is decided, so let’s take a look at the overall situation as it stands today.
Benefits of electric buses
Despite the obvious environmental benefits of large buses not emitting pollutants and greenhouse gases everywhere they drive, the main advantage to these new electric-powered fleets is economic. Electric buses are already cost equivalent or better with traditional diesel buses as it stands today. Chicago, for example, notes that each electric bus saves $25,000 in fuel costs each year, while the total lifecycle cost of electric buses is already lower than diesel buses. Electric buses are even pushing the cost boundaries already with other alternatively fueled buses, like natural gas and hybrid diesel.
The innovation and development that was required to bring the upfront and continual costs of electric buses nearly even with diesel buses was a long-time coming, but moving forward that trend of electric buses becoming more affordable will quickly make them even more economical for cities to invest in, as the prices of EV batteries continue to drop while their efficiencies and lifetimes increase. This trend will continue to demonstrate to public entities the value of pushing for electric bus fleets on purely economic terms.
Beyond the economic advantages, the public health and environmental advantages of clean, electric buses are self-evident. By one calculation, if all school buses in the United States were replaced with electric buses, it would offset 5.3 million tons of emissions—and diesel fumes from buses are known to be hazardous to health of children and citizens alike. As the benefits of clean transportation are realized, government officials and policymakers won’t be able to deny the benefit to environment and marked improvements to public health associated with electric buses. Buses are also an advantageous place to start an EV transformation as opposed to personal vehicles, as their inherent stop/start nature can be utilized for increased EV efficiencies and their frequent stops allow for quick charging at stops along the route in a way that would be inconvenient for driving personal cars.
All of these benefits to electric buses make them appear to be a slam-dunk, but it would be disingenuous not to examine the real challenges electric buses still face before more widespread penetration into the market.
As with any new technology that’s potentially breaking into the market with an already established footprint, electric buses present unique challenges that must be overcome. First and foremost, despite the previously mentioned economic advantages that electric buses have over diesel buses during the entire life cycle of a bus, much of those savings come from fuel and maintenance savings which must make up for the higher ticket price on electric buses. Cities have limited budgets to pour into capital expenses and replacing existing diesel buses with electric buses comes with a bit of a sticker shock from the higher upfront costs. This challenge gives certain municipalities and buyers pause before making the transition.
In addition to the upfront costs from buying the electric buses themselves are the significant investments that are needed to build charging infrastructure. Charing a regular EV already requires special equipment to be installed and maintained, but electric buses are much larger and so the charging infrastructure needed to allow for them to be plugged in are even more significant. These infrastructure costs must also be weighed by those in charge of purchasing decisions before determining whether a city is ready to inject funds into an electric bus fleet.
These cost-related challenges, however, can be overcome. China is home to a vast majority of electric buses worldwide, so much can be learned from examining what occurred on the other side of the world to make electric buses attainable. First, much of the Chinese transition to electric buses came with the aid of federal government funding, a strategy that can be implemented in the United States—even if that’s done in the form of loans that can be repaid via the savings electric buses bring. Further, government funding is important to building out any EV charging infrastructure, as has already been done to an extent with financial settlement of Volkswagen’s so-called Dieselgate as well as federal funds from EPA. Beyond government funding, innovative businesses are also stepping up to the plate to solve the infrastructure problem. For example, New Flyer is an electric bus manufacturer but they’re also implementing an infrastructure solutions program that “could provide cities the guidance necessary for making investments that are long-term sustainable,” a solution that takes advantage of the knowledge and experience gaps the manufacturer can fill.
In addition to cost challenges, the actual operation of some electric buses has also presented further questions about the vehicles’ viability. Some buses from Chinese maker BYD Ltd, in particularly, have faced questions on their tendency in Los Angeles to be found “stalled on hills, required service calls much more frequently than older buses and had unpredictable driving ranges below advertised distances, which were impaired by the heat, the cold or the way the drivers braked.” However, continued development of the technology will ensure greater performance. Further, these issues specific to the one manufacturer have been largely pegged to shortcuts taken and lack of oversight on this particular company. While all electric vehicles come with unique sets of challenges gasoline-powered vehicles don’t (and vice versa), strict oversight and careful selection of contracts are clearly important aspects of these shifts in bus fleets from cities.
Public Support and Future Outlook
As mentioned earlier, the drive behind the shift to electric buses is economic—reflecting how much of the clean energy transition will be driven my saving money rather than morality. These cost savings make workable city-wide the goals to take advantage of the other environmental and social benefits. As a result, U.S. cities are lining up to commit to these transitions:
- New York City and its nation-largest bus fleet is planning to be all-electric by 2040
- After that, the second largest city bus fleet in Los Angeles will be all electric by 2030— in fact all public buses in California will be electric by 2040
- San Francisco will be all electric by 2035
- Even in Alaska, the first electric bus was deployed (and cleverly got the upfront funds needed in exchange for an advertisement on the bus for Anchorage’s waste removal utility)
The other large area to look at is specific to school buses, which typically operate outside of the city bus system and comprise almost 7 times larger of a total fleet than the U.S. public transit sector. Given that 95% of school buses currently run on diesel, and each school bus converted to electric would save a school district $6,400 in fuel & maintenance costs, school buses look to be another no-brainer for a clean transportation transition, not to mention the educational and inspirational opportunities electric school buses could present to children riding them.
Lastly, it’s important to note that not only does this electric bus trend benefit localities by saving taxpayer money and cleaning up the air in the areas, but there’s something to be said about local and state governments committing to clean electric vehicles as a version of leading by example. This leadership applies both in a spiritual way (if others see and experience positive electric bus times, perhaps they’ll be more likely to consider EVs on their own) and in a practical way (governments buying into EVs first will give a reason for the EV charging infrastructure to be built out and solve the chicken and egg problem of waiting for more drivers to adopt EVs before continuing their purchasing).
For all of these reasons, the future outlook for electric buses is one of immense growth and universal benefits. Hop aboard, now, because the electric bus is ready to go!