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  • Writer's pictureJosh Veblen

Electrifying Public Transportation

Updated: Jan 7

Transportation is currently responsible for 37% of all carbon emissions in the U.S. Electrifying transportation is one of the fastest, and most effective, ways to reduce emissions and curb climate change.

Despite its many advantages (cleaner air, reduced GHG emissions, improved infrastructure) the electrification of transportation requires a paradigm shift in the way we move people and products—and it poses several challenges. In addressing those challenges, the entire mobility ecosystem—including auto manufacturers, suppliers, investors, dealers, and energy providers—is discovering the need for system-wide innovation and closer partnerships.

A logical first step in the electrification process is to boost the public’s adoption of electric passenger vehicles.

Electric passenger vehicle sales have passed a tipping point

EV sales rose 37% in the third quarter of 2022 compared to the same period in 2021. Most importantly, EV new car sales market share has now surpassed the 5% market share benchmark that typically leads to exponential adoption. This is supported by the recent Consumer Reports research which found that 36% of Americans plan to buy or lease an electric-only vehicle as their next car.

“EVs have a strong potential to generate a virtuous cycle; as more people buy them, more people will get exposure and experience with them, and more people will want to buy them.”

Chris Harto, Senior Energy Policy Analyst, Consumer Reports

To that end, U.S. automakers are investing nearly $55 billion in electric vehicle (EV) research and development and over $67 billion in EV manufacturing facilities according to A wave of new EVs from pickup trucks to mid-market SUVs and sedans will be released during 2023

New government programs and incentives are in place to overcome the two remaining adoption barriers for passenger vehicles: initial cost and charging infrastructure. The federal government is investing $100 billion in the EV market—providing tax credits to help consumers overcome initial sticker shock and making $5 billion available to state governments to improve access to charging stations across the U.S.

But what about public transportation?

With gas prices rising and environmental concerns growing in importance for constituents, city leaders and transit agencies across the U.S. are being challenged to transition away from fossil-fuel-based public transportation to more sustainable and affordable options.

City buses are ideal for electrification. According to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), there are approximately 65,000 transit buses, 68,000 demand-response vehicles, and 470,000 school buses in the U.S. public transportation system. The current fleet of public transportation buses is around 40% diesel, 40% compressed natural gas (CNG), and 20% hybrid. School buses are almost entirely diesel (95%).

Diesel and CNG public and school buses emit 11 million kg of carbon monoxide, 107 million kg of NOx, 333 million kg of particulate matter, and unassessed quantities of ozone, lead, and sulfur dioxide every year, resulting in health damages of around $100 billion.

Electrifying public transportation will eliminate nearly all of those emissions. It will also lower overall maintenance and operating costs for the city. (A recent study conducted by the Environment America Research and Policy Center found that transitioning to electric buses would save $400,000 in fuel expenses and $125,000 in averted maintenance costs per bus over the vehicle’s lifetime.)

Both city and school buses are often used in areas with high concentrations of people.

More than 20 million children use school buses every day in the U.S. Exhaust from diesel buses includes fine particles of carbon and a mixture of toxic gases which are known to irritate airways and damage genetic information in cells.

Accordingly, diesel exhaust is classified as a probable human carcinogen.

Barriers to electrification

Developing the charging infrastructure required to keep electric buses running is the main obstacle for cities and transit agencies. Additional concerns include:

  • Initial purchase costs

  • Energy costs

  • The reliability of battery-operated buses (BEBs), especially in areas with extreme weather events

Workable Solutions

Partnering with the local utility

City leaders are discovering that their local utility can be an invaluable partner when developing a charging infrastructure plan. Utilities want to partner with transit agencies so they understand the additional energy electric buses will require—and they will invest as needed to ensure they can provide that energy when needed.

To that end, electric utilities have approved more than $3 billion in utility transportation electrification funding. The funding includes installing charging stations on highways, in low-income neighborhoods, in apartment complexes, and in workplaces.

Here’s how they can facilitate the electrification of public transportation:

  • They can develop a more beneficial rate plan as soon as they understand how the electrification transition will affect the local load profile

  • They can provide the critical intelligence needed to create an effective charging infrastructure plan by identifying locations best suited for both short- and long-term build-outs.

  • And, finally, they can also recommend strategies to reduce charging costs at each station as well as options for securing a reliable energy supply (on-site solar and battery storage for example).

As a result, a growing number of states are drafting legislation requiring public utilities to develop comprehensive transportation electrification strategies needed to:

  • Increase customer awareness of electric vehicles

  • Provide equitable access to transportation electrification for disadvantaged communities

  • Ensure electric vehicles are charging when rates are at their lowest level.

Accessing government and Utility Funding

Since many municipal and school board budgets may accommodate the initial capital expenditure required to electrify their fleets, leveraging funding from federal, state, municipal, and utility programs is an obvious solution. Current funding opportunities include:

  • The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides up to $108 billion for federal public transportation programs (including $30+ billion for existing bus electrification programs).

  • The federal Low- or No-Emissions Program provides funding to state and local governmental authorities for the purchase or lease of zero-emission and low-emission transit buses as well as the acquisition, construction, and leasing of required supporting facilities.

Implementing on-site energy generation and battery storage

Electrifying school and city buses requires a lot of energy. Accordingly, transit agencies may want to explore additional energy generation options such as onsite renewables, microsites, virtual power plants, and battery storage systems.

A good sign for the future

While the electric bus market was negatively impacted by COVID-related issues (labor shortages, supply chain issues, etc.) the number of electric transit buses currently on order or operating in the U.S. grew 112% from 2018 to 2021, according to CALSTART.

With new funding available from the Federal Transit Administration more cities and transit agencies are now ordering electric transit buses—to the point where many bus manufacturers are struggling to deliver.

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