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Electric Buses Are Charging Forward

Transit agencies large and small are making the switch to electric buses, and are collecting and analyzing significant new caches of operational data to best and most efficient use of charging infrastructure.

Causeway Connection
The Causeway Connection is a new commuter bus route serving Sacramento, Calif. and nearby Davis using fully electric buses. The route is operated by Sacramento Regional Transit.
Skip Descant/ Government Technology

Los Angeles hopes to have an entirely electric bus fleet by the time the city hosts the 2028 Olympics.

The L.A. Department of Transportation has already taken a big step in that direction with the purchase of 155 battery-electric buses to be rolled out over the next two years.

Transitioning such a large number of buses to electric “is smart from the aspect of they can actually see and appreciate the economies of scale that come along with the adoption of an entire electrification strategy,” said Justin Rees, CEO of TransLoc, a Ford Mobility company.

LADOT Transit, which operates about 350 buses for commuter and other routes, has taken one of the broadest steps in the nation to transition toward emissions free vehicles. The shift to electric power represents a sizable technological move by transit systems, and one lauded for its ability to reduce carbon and climate-warming gases, while also saving money from operational costs. (LADOT Transit is hardly the only transit provider in Los Angeles. LA Metro operates more than 2,300 buses across the region.)

There are some 2,255 zero-emission buses in the United States, according the September, 2019 report Zeroing in on ZEBs by CALSTART, a clean transportation advocacy group based in California, which operates the lion’s share of ZEBs. 

Electric buses are part of a larger trend in the heavy duty vehicles sector seeing the electrification of numerous vehicles related to trucking or logistics.

“It is true that a lot of the EV growth right now is happening in the medium and heavy-duty,” said Josh Boone, executive director of Veloz, a Sacramento-based electric vehicle advocacy and education group.  “So we’re seeing a lot of exciting growth in the electric bus space, for example. And a lot of conversation around electrifying trucks, electrifying ports.

“We definitely think there’s a huge opportunity,” he added. “And in fact, from a climate change and emissions perspective, some argue that that’s where I get more ‘bang for the buck’ in the near term.”

The most difficult part of the transition to electric is vehicle charging. 

“How do you make sure that you can sustain a fleet of vehicles that are all electric? And if you do it on a small scale you really haven’t put the investment in the infrastructure to do it,” said Rees.

“Buses are on the road for sometimes hours and hours at a time. Sometimes these shifts are 12-hour shifts. And these vehicles are going to be on the road for a long time, and if you don’t have that infrastructure in place… it just doesn’t work out as well,” he added. 

“The infrastructure is a huge challenge,” agreed Vic Shao, CEO of AMPLY Power, a maker of electric fleet charging infrastructure and management software, adding electricity rates can fluctuate some 400 percent in a single day. “The volatility is crazy.” 

Which makes it difficult to budget the costs of EVs, which sometimes dissuade the adoption of the vehicles. 

“That’s really where a lot of transit agencies are stuck at right now. The pilots worked great. They want to deploy more. But they can’t get a handle on their operations costs, and the cost to refuel,” said Shao. “All of this has to be automated. It has to be reliable.

“That’s the only way you’re going to get the economics to align,” he added. 

“Demand charging” another complicated metric, which introduces a higher electric rate when customers significantly increase demand, such as recharging several electric buses at once. Which is why transit agencies need to structure their bus charging in a way to avoid spikes in demand charging.  

“So what you want to do is spread out your charging sessions. You want to stagger them. And you want to produce a demand curve that’s flat,” said Shao.

Companies like TransLoc, AMPLY and others analyze data related to ridership patterns, along with operational considerations like charging locations and times, to establish service routes that are use electric assets more efficiently. 

“As you have that data, and you analyze that data, you can make very good decisions. Maybe it doesn’t require that you put those charging stations in a very expensive part of town. You can have them out more in the suburbs in a place that has less impact and a less costly investment to do that infrastructure buildout,” said Rees. 

“The data, coupled with the electrification strategy is going to give people the best opportunity for success. Because you can really dig into where it makes sense to do that investment,” said Rees. 

Good data also helps to measure the impact of electric buses. 

“You can feel good about having an electric bus fleet. But with the right data, and encouraging ridership, you can actually show that impact,” said Rees. “Without the data you’re not going to have an accurate picture of that impact.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.