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Ohio Capital City Plans Electric Bus Test, with an Eye Toward Converting its Fleet in the Future

If the pilot program goes smoothly, the earliest the Central Ohio Transit Authority could use an all-electric fleet is 2023.

(TNS) — The Central Ohio Transit Authority is planning a pilot program to see whether electric buses can drive public transportation in and around the state's capital city.

"The industry's moving to electric buses," said Mike Bradley, COTA's vice president of planning and service development, during a presentation to the transit agency's board.

The Central Ohio Transit Authority currently has 351 buses, 150 of which run on compressed natural gas. The rest run on diesel fuel. COTA expects to add 28 natural gas-powered buses annually and phase out the diesel fleet, which is more expensive to operate and releases more air-polluting carbon dioxide.

Bradley gave a presentation late last month at a COTA board meeting about a three-year pilot program that would use 10 buses powered by electricity.

COTA declined to further discuss the program with The Dispatch because the electric bus plan "is too conceptual" at this time. COTA plans to start the program in 2019.

Electric buses aren't used much now, especially in the United States, but the growth potential is massive.

China's 170,000 electric buses account for more than 95 percent of the world's all-electric buses in use.

About two dozen U.S. cities use all-electric buses for public transportation or, like COTA is planning, in pilot programs. In August, the second-largest U.S. transit agency, L.A. Metro, announced that all of its 2,200 buses will be powered by electricity by 2030. New York City's Metropolitan Transit Authority began its own all-electric bus pilot program in December.

"Clearly, you'll see more and more electric buses in the world," said Kate Bartter, director of Ohio State University's Office of Energy and Environment.

Bartter praises all-electric transportation as cleaner, more efficient and, as an owner of a personal all-electric car, an opportunity to teach the advantages of alternative energy.

"I do think that electrification is going to be a larger and larger and critically important piece of the marketplace," Bartter said.

The technology isn't new to COTA.

The authority operated an electric trolley in Columbus in 1888. By 1892, its entire transit system used electric trolleys.

The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that buses powered by compressed natural gas get the equivalent of 4.51 miles per diesel gallon. Electric buses get 17.5 miles per diesel gallon equivalent. Using one electric bus is equivalent to taking 27 gasoline-powered cars off the road — along with their exhaust fumes, the transportation department says.

All-electric buses require no liquid fuel, no oil changes and few moving parts. They require fewer service calls and 30 percent fewer parts, including 75 percent fewer brake repairs. Cities using the buses report tens of thousands of dollars in cost savings annually.

The pilot program also fits with the Smart Columbus goal to use technology to make transportation easier, faster and more efficient.

"I think that the vehicle-electrification effort around Smart Columbus drives this," said Michael Stevens, a COTA board member who also is chief innovation officer for Columbus and leads Smart Columbus.

"I see this as being a natural extension of what we're doing" at Smart Columbus, he said.

There are some negatives that could come with all-electric buses.

Gas-powered buses cost about $535,000 each. Those same buses cost an additional $300,000 if powered by electricity, but that's still cheaper when maintenance is factored in over the life of both buses.

It's also unknown how the batteries will be affected by Ohio's hot summers and cold winters.

The biggest issues to be addressed, though, are "range anxiety" and the cost to build charging stations.

For example, will the buses have enough battery power to run 200 or more miles per day without having to be charged, which could cause a bus to be delayed?

Renovations for a COTA operations facility include plans for electric charging stations. That works well for charging buses overnight, but buses might need to be charged in the middle of a route. That could require more equipment across the route that would allow electric buses to be charged briefly during stops.

"Infrastructure will be the number one priority," Bradley told the board.

Though electricity might be a more cost-effective way to run a bus now, large amounts of natural gas in the United States likely will mean cheap fuel for some time.

If the pilot program is successful, the earliest that COTA could use electric-only buses is 2023.

©2018 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.