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Discussing the Opportunities and Challenges Ahead

Public transit agencies’ commitment to the communities they serve lies not only in improving the services they offer, but also in reducing the impact they have on the environment. Lower-emission technologies are an increasingly viable option, and agencies operating in a variety of climates and terrains across the country are investigating hybrid and all-electric buses as a complement or alternative to their existing fleets. Passenger Transport asked a cross-section of industry leaders to share their perspectives in this one-question interview:

With environmental and financial concerns assuming ever-greater importance for public transportation systems, what do you consider are the most significant challenges and opportunities facing the electrification of buses?

GILLIG: Setting System Priorities
Derek Maunus
President and CEO

Zero-emission battery-electric buses will play an increased role in the U.S. public transit market in the years ahead. Many variables influence the pace of successful adoption, including further technological advancement in battery density, the success of early adopters, the availability of funding and the responsible formation of high-quality charging standards.

Today, as public transit authorities work through their fleet electrification strategies, they face many unknowns and must navigate among conflicting priorities. The higher capital costs for electric buses pose a significant challenge for transit authorities during a time when funding to replace the nation’s current aging fleets is already scarce. Without a meaningful increase in capital funding, tradeoffs will need to be made between electrification and the challenges of running older or smaller fleets.

In addition to budgetary concerns and ­environmental goals, agencies have to face operational priorities that must be realistically evaluated in relation to their electrification strategy. For our industry to successfully adopt this new technology, these tradeoffs need to be thoroughly understood and carefully considered.

Therein lies another significant challenge facing the electrification of fleets today: overcoming the enormous amount of misinformation related to electric bus metrics and how the technology relates to each specific operation. These metrics include the capital cost of the buses and charging infrastructure, operational range in different route and climate scenarios, cost and availability of energy, details surrounding battery degradation and costs associated with both long-term maintenance and product reliability. This information varies significantly depending on the source and may be aggressively optimistic.

There is a real threat that misguided future expectations can undermine the successful adoption of ­electrification. What the industry needs is tested, ­reliable data from trusted partners to enable ­public transit agencies to make the informed decisions critical to the success of their electric vehicle programs. This is where the opportunities exist, and GILLIG is committed to providing our customers with solutions to help advance their mobility and environmental missions.

The next few years promise technological advancements that will make electrification an increasingly viable alternative. At ­GILLIG, we also believe the industry is making good headway toward agreeing on charging standards and OEM compatibility, which are critically important pacing items for adoption. We are optimistic that these advances bring adoption closer to our customers.

Park City, UT: Service at a High Elevation
Blake Fonnesbeck
Transit & Public Works Director
Park City (UT) Transit

Park City, UT, was the first mountain resort community in the U.S. to operate a zero-emission, all-electric bus system, the Electric Xpress operated by Park City Transit.

The fleet of six buses provides service on a 10-minute frequency from two major transit hubs six miles apart, supporting the City Council’s critical priorities of reducing congestion and investing in related renewable energy. Park City Transit is currently awaiting seven additional electric buses from Proterra.

Our transit system is challenged with operating on a wide variety of mountain roads and weather conditions; planning upcoming procurements ultimately depends on alternative propulsion technology being able to perform exceedingly well in a side-by-side comparison with diesel technology. The greatest opportunity will arise for the electrification of our local community bus fleet when technology is proven to exist with faster chargers, holding a longer charge—thus increasing overall range.

It has been often stated, “Rumors are like fires. No one admits to starting them and before you know it, they’re out of control.” The unknown can be scary. The challenge in the near future of implementing a successful battery-electric bus program is to educate ­budget and fleet managers on the nuances of the new technology. While this process may seem scary, it is more about listening to employee concerns and providing them with correct information so they can feel more comfortable with the newest technology.

The seven electric buses expected in November already have large wheels to fill. Their newly developed dual-drive technology, charging at night, will allow for an unprecedented 250-mile range, subsequently positioning them for use on most routes within the Park City Transit system.

A fleet solely dependent on fast-charge technology would necessitate exponentially increased charging infrastructure allowing for compulsory redundancy. The expanded battery range, though not fully proportionate with the standard range driven daily on given routes, would be manageable to charge midday. Every route travels through one of the two main transit centers; both have fast-charge overhead charge units.

Challenges are merely opportunities. Park City Transit is hopeful that, through newly advanced technology, increased training and minimal additional en-route charging infrastructure, an electrified bus fleet will allow for Park City to continue charging forward toward a brighter and cleaner future.

New Flyer: Coping with Transformative Technology

David Warren
Director of Sustainable Transportation
New Flyer of America Inc.

Transportation transformation is underway; electric vehicles that reduce pollutants and greenhouse gases are already on the road, driver assist and collision avoidance systems that enhance safety are being tested and deployed in various stages and on-board telematics connected to the Internet of Things (IoT) are providing new opportunities for smart mobility solutions (efficient, connected and multimodal infrastructure) in the pursuit of developing smart cities. Whether this transformation is evolutionary or revolutionary depends on your starting point.

The challenges of today’s electric buses mirror the electric car market: 1) electric cars have higher acquisition costs; 2) batteries are heavier compared to gas and diesel; and 3) the range capability of an electric car is considerably less than a car with an internal combustion engine—most noticeably in hot or cold climates where heating and air conditioning consume significant energy. With these challenges, New Flyer expects that battery advancements will eventually close these gaps.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of electric vehicles is the required charging equipment and infrastructure. Power requirements have significant implications for bus operations and transit facilities. For example, a transit depot with 100 battery-electric buses (BEBs) to be charged overnight requires up to 10 megawatts of power, the equivalent to powering 10,000 homes. Over a four-hour charge period, 40 megawatt-hours of energy are downloaded from the grid to recharge bus batteries.

Distributing power beyond the depot to off-site, high-power chargers allows for less-expensive, shorter-range buses with fewer batteries. These buses operate continuously without returning to the depot. Infrastructure requires thoughtful upfront planning with city planners, transportation departments and utility companies.

Optimizing energy costs up front by understanding time-of-use and demand charges is critical to a successful electrification program. These scenarios can be accurately modeled for financial analysis. With an effective charging strategy, the energy savings (regionally dependent) can be significant.

New Flyer of America opened its 30,000-square-foot Vehicle Innovation Center (VIC) in Anniston, AL, in October 2017 to focus on exploration and advancement of bus technology. Charging equipment based on industry standards is on site for learning and demonstrations. Since opening, the VIC has welcomed more than 230 people through its doors, eager to learn more about BEB technology, safety, training techniques and diagnostics.

It’s an exciting time to be involved in the transformation of public transportation. Now is the time for collaboration, training and deployment planning.

Nova Bus: Helping Both Locally and Globally

Ray Little
Vice President, Sales
Nova Bus

The electrification of buses offers significant benefits by reducing carbon emissions both locally and globally, decreasing operating costs, improving performance and offering passengers a quieter, more comfortable ride.

Thanks to zero-emission features, electric buses can operate indoors, paving the way for indoor bus stops such as one installed in Gothenburg, Sweden. Intermodality and ridership can be improved by bringing electric buses closer to users, inside train stations or shopping malls.

These advantages should not come, however, at the expense of service—its regularity, reliability or cost. Investments and operating costs must remain at reasonable levels, especially in light of the current volatility of public transportation budgets.

Nova Bus is working hard at meeting this challenge by introducing a variety of battery and charging options, using proven electrical components and capitalizing on the decreasing cost of these newer technologies. Along with other industry stakeholders, we are bringing together infrastructure partners including power utilities, building design consultants and engineering firms to address cost challenges.

Supporting public transit agencies during this technology shift is important, which is why Nova Bus offers complete maintenance staff training and constant support for charging infrastructure installation and bus maintenance.

To enable the electrification of bus fleets, an important first step for public transit agencies is to consider the route network and service schedule to determine the best distribution of ­charging infrastructure locations, ensuring the highest possible operational efficiency while minimizing infrastructure investment.

Public transit agencies should also build strong relationships with local utilities to leverage the best power rates, based on a long-term plan, including connection schemes and grid investments. With renewable energy and energy storage technologies, this opens the door to using efficient power management and low-emission electricity, leading to new business-model opportunities where utilities can become outstanding charging-service suppliers.

Lastly, all levels of government have an important role to play in the electrification of public transportation: the vision must be set by our leaders and they need to commit to investing in electric bus fleet infrastructure.

Complete Coach Works: Simplify the Technology

Dale E. Carson
Complete Coach Works

As environmental and air-quality concerns grow, pure battery-electric vehicles are proving an increasingly viable alternative for public transportation.

While concerns have been expressed regarding the “off-the-shelf” price of a battery-electric bus (BEB) vs. a fossil fuel-powered bus, public transit agencies can realize significantly reduced maintenance costs with a BEB, making the total cost of bus ­ownership lower for a BEB over the vehicle’s lifetime.

To enable widespread adoption of battery-powered vehicles in the public transportation ecosystem, however, a simpler and more reliable alternative to the traditional plug-in charging solution is essential. The key enabler will need to be a fully-automated, “hands-free,” minimal-maintenance wireless charging solution that can eliminate the need to plug in and unplug charger cables and also mitigate the contactor failure and insulation damage suffered by large and heavy cables during repetitive use.

While agencies are seeing a four to five times improvement in efficiency with an electric motor, as compared to an internal combustion engine, these improvements need to be supported by an infrastructure that allows for an efficient means of charging. Wireless charging will deliver power to the battery at efficiency levels comparable to a plug-in charger.

These wireless systems have been in operation for more than five years at different U.S. public transit agencies and have proven resilient in both hot and humid and cold and snowy conditions. In addition, wireless charging pads embedded in roadways have endured the wear and tear of heavy vehicles driving over them hundreds of times per day.

This ultimate conversion from a petroleum-based fuel to an electric utility grid-based solution is not without challenges, since the diesel fuel infrastructure is well established and reasonably priced, even if sometimes volatile. The biggest challenges for creating a wireless charging infrastructure equivalent to that for diesel include: (1) obtaining capital to build out the electric grid, (2) installing the infrastructure at the points of use and (3) mitigating the peak demand and time-of-use costs associated with delivering electricity when it is needed.

The effort will be worth it. Just as cellular infrastructure enabled the ubiquitous presence of mobile devices, the buildout of large-scale wireless charging infrastructure will enable widespread BEB adoption. And a note for future consideration: when autonomous vehicles come to dominate the public transportation landscape, there will be no drivers to handle plug-in chargers; wireless charging is the solution for both the coming years and the future.

AC Transit: Moving Toward a Green Goal

Michael Hursh
General Manager
Alameda-Contra Costa County Transit (AC Transit)

Operating 155 bus lines daily meant Alameda-­Contra Costa Transit District (AC Transit) in Oakland, CA, needed to design a masterplan to keep people moving and become good stewards of the environment of one the state’s most picturesque regions. That plan started with the daily operation of 13 zero-emission buses. We had little idea that the fleet would make history and allow AC Transit to emerge as an international vanguard in the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The fact that we operate the largest fleet of continuously operating zero-emission buses in the world garnered the attention of the Fuel Cell Electric Bus Commercialization Consortium (FCEBCC), which awarded our district a grant to purchase 10 new fuel-cell buses. Our environmental pledge also includes the order of five new battery-electric buses with depot charging funded through FTA’s Low or No Emissions Vehicle Deployment Program (LoNo). In just months, we will be the first transit agency to run hydrogen and battery-electric buses side-by-side for a comprehensive study.

Nevertheless, chasing “green” is challenging. A fundamental issue with electrification of bus fleets includes the significant upfront cost and construction for charging stations, and the maintenance infrastructure required to operate zero-emission vehicles.

We believe that meeting the California Air Resource Board’s (CARB) proposed goal of transitioning public transit buses to 100 percent zero emission must include a multi-year funding commitment including guaranteed rebates, credits and infrastructure investments. Uniform standards for charging and fueling infrastructure must also receive prioritization from the state.

Another substantial uncertainty is the scalability of the fueling and charging systems. By current comparison, our East Oakland bus division fuels 200 diesel buses in 10 hours. With electrification, cost and feasibility to scale up fueling and charging systems to the capacity of 200 buses in a 10-hour window is unknown, and uncertainty worsens with absent state standards of these systems.

In addition, the centralized collection of fleet and infrastructure data is critical. Reliable data is central to properly planning whether the stated range of a coach in year one will be similar to the range of the coach in year six and beyond.

Despite the challenges, AC Transit is committed to operating the maximum level of public transit with given resources while advancing our role as a global leader in the transition from fossil fuels to zero emissions. These two efforts must not undercut one another.

OCTA: Reducing Emissions, Forging Ahead

Darrell E. Johnson
Chief Executive Officer
Orange County (CA) Transportation Authority

At the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA), we are proud of the efforts we’ve undertaken to integrate new technologies such as zero-emission electric buses into our fleet—ahead of regulatory requirements and in an economically sustainable manner. We are reducing emissions in our already clean-burning fleet and testing new technology with the goal of staying ahead of the curve.

Two years ago, the OCTA Board of Directors approved a pilot program to test the use of a hydrogen fuel cell electric bus in our fleet, allowing us to review how hydrogen-electric technology would perform over time on the streets of Orange County. Since then, OCTA has purchased an additional 10 hydrogen electric buses. The delivery of those buses in early 2019 will coincide with the completion of a new hydrogen fueling station at our Santa Ana bus base that will allow us to fuel the new electric buses on site.

OCTA will incorporate these buses into its existing fleet of 520 buses, most of which run on CNG. We also are exclusively using renewable natural gas and integrating low-nitrogen-oxide engines where possible.

I see reason for optimism in the new technology to further decrease emissions, and it may prove to be a cost savings in the long term by potentially lowering maintenance costs. But more testing is needed, so OCTA will continue on the path of reducing emissions and testing emerging technologies while ensuring that we’re doing so efficiently and sustainably.

That said, several significant challenges remain in moving toward a 100 percent zero-emission electric bus fleet while maintaining the same high level of service. Chief among those challenges is that adequate funding is not identified to bridge the gap between existing technology and zero-emission buses.

Converting OCTA’s fleet to zero-emission electric buses could cost approximately $442 million, and current funding sources pay for existing public transit services. To fund the anticipated gap, OCTA would have to consider the unwanted option of reducing service.

In addition, converting the existing fleet does not mean simply replacing one existing CNG bus with one electric bus. Our buses must have a 300-mile range, and current technology hasn’t demonstrated that electric buses can meet those range demands, so maintaining current service levels would require more buses. Add to that the cost of new technology facilities and transitioning infrastructure, and it would become an even heavier financial burden.

Another challenge we foresee is the ability to quickly and adequately train employees who can expertly operate and maintain a new generation of buses.

We are excited to embrace the future of public transit at OCTA; we also believe that the transition needs to be gradual and the risks carefully mitigated to prepare our staff so we can continue delivering the highest level of customer service.
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