Is Virginia ready for more electric buses?

Electric bus released in 2020 at a ceremony in Hampton Roads by Andria McClellan/Twitter.

This article first appeared in the Virginia Mercury.

Of the more than 2,168 buses operated by public transportation providers in Virginia, only about 1% run on electricity. Beyond the 26 battery-electric buses currently in service, the rest of the Commonwealth’s transit bus fleet relies on fossil fuels, more than half of which rely on dirty diesel. Thanks to a strategic state study and a huge round of federal funding, the number of battery-electric buses in Virginia is expected to more than double this year, but real questions remain about how fast the Commonwealth can transition to the all electric.

Billions for battery electric buses

Recently, when U.S. Representative Elaine Luria, D-Norfolk, visited an outdated bus operations and maintenance depot in Virginia Beach, she presented an oversized $5 million check to Hampton Roads Transit to upgrade that facility. . When the new depot is completed in 2025, it will accommodate more than 100 buses and 14 seasonal trolleys, reduce dead miles by 62,000 per year and play a central role in HRT’s plans to electrify its bus fleet.

Public transport contributes just 0.3% of Commonwealth carbon emissions according to the Department of Railways and Public Transport, but with most fleet decisions firmly under government influence – otherwise under direct jurisdiction — the issue has become a priority for Democratic lawmakers seeking to show that a more climate-friendly future is not only possible, but well worth the initial investment. Although State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond’s transit transition fund and program bill died in the House this year, the push for all-electric buses has been accelerated. by federal efforts.

Thanks to the bipartisan Infrastructure Act, this year the Federal Transit Administration’s low- or zero-emission vehicle program will grow from just $1.5 million in annual funding (not enough for a bus) to $1.5 billion. of dollars. Over the next five years, this program is expected to distribute $5.5 billion to help local transit agencies purchase low- or zero-emission vehicles, equipment and facilities.

“Prioritizing and investing in electric buses will not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but will also significantly reduce long-term fuel and maintenance costs for localities, saving money taxpayer dollars that can be reinvested in public infrastructure projects,” Luria said. “Electrifying buses is just one of the many ways we can reduce emissions and costs while improving transit services and reducing congestion on the road.”

Conversion issues

Replacing a single diesel-powered transit vehicle with a battery-electric bus can prevent more than 300,000 pounds of greenhouse gases from being emitted into the atmosphere each year. The absence of tailpipe emissions is also a huge benefit to local air quality and public health outcomes, particularly by reducing the rate of respiratory disease. Falling fuel and maintenance costs are also strong incentives for transit providers to electrify. Passengers even report that electric buses provide a smoother and quieter ride.

With fantastic sums of federal funding up for grabs and a litany of battery-electric benefits, the transition to zero-emission buses seems like a no-brainer; however, such a significant shift in vehicle fuel sources is not without concern.

“It’s not like you can just buy an electric bus and replace a diesel bus,” said Grant Sparks, director of transit planning for DRPT. “Transit providers need to understand that there is an impact on the scheduling, staffing and layout of the maintenance facility. The biggest issue right now that’s holding many agencies back is battery life.

America’s first battery-electric buses hit the market about a decade ago. Since most transit vehicles are expected to serve passengers for 12 years, this means that many electric buses still have to go through a full life cycle for transit providers to assess their full lifespan. performance.

“Where the electric bus industry is under scrutiny is whether these batteries can last 12 years or will they need to be replaced halfway through the life cycle,” said said Sparks. “It would add an extra cost to the maintenance of electric buses, and there’s not a ton of data on that.”

A diesel bus with a full tank of fuel can run for 20 hours straight. Today, battery electric buses cannot exceed 200 miles per day without a full charge on the route throughout their shift. The overhead chargers needed to rapidly charge bus batteries currently cost half a million dollars each, making such rapid charging prohibitively expensive. Add to that the challenges of hilly terrain and colder climates, and the reluctance of transit agencies to switch to all-electric buses suddenly makes more sense.

As the first agency in Virginia to purchase electric buses, HRT has had its fair share of growing pains. Initially, its six battery-electric buses could not be deployed in Hampton or Newport News due to the lack of a strong enough grid to support charging on the Upper Peninsula. The winter performance of the buses turned out to be an even worse fiasco. Lacking experience with battery-powered buses that don’t naturally produce heat from the engine, HRT staff didn’t know they had to order an additional heater package.

“Electric buses don’t do a good job of heating, so some of our vehicles had internal temperatures of 55 degrees during the winter months,” explained Andria McClellan, chair of the board of HRT. “Our electric buses are quiet and clean, but we discovered during that first winter that their typical range of 225 miles on a full charge had dropped to 100 miles because operators had to blast the heat to keep passengers warm. “

The fleet of the future

HRT’s bumpy road to successful deployment of battery electric buses has not deterred other agencies looking to reduce emissions and operating costs. Lessons learned at Hampton Roads actually helped Alexandria’s DASH bus system prepare for its own aggressive electrification efforts.

“We knew there would be rollout issues with charging,” said Raymund Mui, deputy general manager of DASH. “We expected a reduced range in winter. We knew that heat would no longer be a natural by-product of propulsion, so we had to plan for that. These are not things that derailed our efforts because we expected these weaknesses and were able to account for them.

Until 2017, DASH’s fleet was all diesel. Over the past five years, the Alexandria Transit Agency has become the state leader in electrification with more than 14 battery-powered buses. The city has set a goal of buying only zero-emission buses by 2027. With that much federal funding, Mui hopes DASH can purge its fleet of fossil fuels by 2035 at the latest.

To expedite their efforts, DASH has split its purchases of battery electric buses and chargers evenly between the two largest U.S. manufacturers: Proterra and New Flyer. By testing equipment from both companies, Mui expects his agency to be able to teach other transit providers across the Commonwealth how to properly electrify their fleets. Huge questions about network load and capacity remain; however, DASH’s pragmatic approach to problem solving inspires confidence. “Conceptually, they’re all giant electric golf carts,” Mui said.

DRPT plans to launch a comprehensive transit electrification study later this year that will underpin these agency efforts and may even set a statewide goal; however, a chapter of the agency’s Transit Equity and Modernization Study provided initial findings on the topic which were presented to the Commonwealth Transportation Board in April.

Full electrification of Virginia’s public transportation fleets by 2045 would cost $800 million for the vehicles themselves and another $300 million for charging infrastructure. That $1.1 billion price tag may seem steep, but with Congress providing states, localities and transit providers $5.5 billion for battery-electric buses over the next five years, it There’s no better time than now to find the funding for electrification, according to Sparks.

His advice to the dozens of Virginia transit providers interested in buying battery-powered buses? “Essentially let Uncle Sam pay for your electrification efforts and avoid spending local or state funds on it.”

Wyatt Gordon is a correspondent for the Virginia Mercury through a grant from the Coalition for Smarter Growth and the Piedmont Environmental Council. He is also responsible for land use and transportation policy at the Virginia Conservation Network. He was born and raised in Richmond with a master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa and a bachelor’s degree in international political economy from American University. He writes for The Times of India, Nairobi News, Style Weekly, GGWash and RVA Magazine.

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