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Electric Buses Are Finding their Way Around Adoption Barriers

Heavy-duty vehicles contribute a disproportionate amount of particulate matter and greenhouse gases, making them prime candidates for converting to zero-emission vehicles. Buses are no exception.

Electrifying heavy-duty vehicles like city buses and delivery trucks stands to make sizable inroads into making the transportation sector greener.

“At the global level they [commercial vehicles] represent a relatively small share of the on-road fleet, but they contribute to a disproportionate amount of fuel consumption and emissions,” said Christiano Façanha, the global director at CALSTART, a nonprofit advocating for clean transportation technology.

Façanha was part of a Dec. 3 webinar discussion addressing some of the issues around heavy-duty electric vehicles hosted by Veloz, a California-based electric vehicle education and advocacy group.

Heavy-duty commercial vehicles make up just more than 10 percent of vehicles on the highways, said Façanha. However, they consume nearly half of the on-road global fuel and produce more than 70 percent of particulate matter.

“So we’re talking about a really good bang for your buck, in terms of investing and improving the technology,” he added during the webinar titled, “Buses and Trucks: How Electrification of Medium – and Heavy – Duty Vehicles is Poised to Move the Needle.”

The trend toward electrifying heavy-duty vehicles today is largely propelled by the bus market — both urban transit vehicles and school buses, say officials.

The transit bus sector is rapidly approaching 20 percent of the zero-emissions vehicles sold in the U.S., compared to the passenger vehicle market, Kent Leacock, senior director of government relations and public policy at Proterra, a maker of battery-electric buses, explained during the webinar.

“As a percentage of sales, the transit bus sector has caught and passed the passenger vehicle market on an apples-to-apples comparison of new vehicle sales,” he added. 

As of September 2019, there are some 2,300 zero-emission transit buses in operation in the United States, according to a report by CALSTART, an increase of 36 percent over last year.

The strong growth is attributed largely to shifts in public policy as transit managers, as well as city, county and state transportation departments, put in place policies calling for the purchase of more electric buses and the buildout of the charging infrastructure to support them.

“Once a fleet CEO or CFO or combination of C-suite decide that battery-electric is the way that they’re going to go, they’re going to convert their whole fleet, and the numbers are going to go [up],” said Leacock.

Some utility providers, like Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) in California, have put together consultation teams and incentive packages to help transit agencies or other fleet operators to make the switch to electric vehicles.

“One of the barriers to electric vehicle adoption is the infrastructure component,” said Will Quinn, manager of clean energy transportation at PG&E. “If you’re buying more than say, a truck or two, you will not have enough capacity on your existing panel, on-site. And you’ll need to work with your utility company, wherever you are, to upgrade your site and get more capacity.”

PG&E’s EV fleet program is set up to help deliver “to-the-meter infrastructure,” Quinn explained, which ends up being conventional utility assets. The utility can provide incentives, depending on the vehicle, to cover “behind-the-meter costs” as well, such as offering rebates for the charging station.

“We really are holding your hand through the entire process, scoping out that project design with you, helping you select the right charger, depending on your use case,” said Quinn.

Meeting with the utility for this level of consultation early on is crucial, Leacock advises. 

“You have to partner with your utility at the very beginning of the project, not after you’ve ordered the buses and they’re on their way,” said Leacock. “Right when you’re thinking about getting buses, you need to partner with your utility to make sure that they are on board with delivering the amount of electricity that you need.”

Planning the infrastructure and then managing charging — usually with the help of software to optimize the best time and amount of charging for each bus’s needs — is central to a well thought-out bus conversion strategy, and one which will translate to significant operational savings, said Leacock.

“I really believe that charging at scale, at fleet level, will remain the challenge, to execute that in a way that makes electricity less expensive than fossil fuels,” said Leacock. “Electricity, as a fuel, has to be cheaper than its fossil fuel counterpart.”

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.