A new trend is emerging in the electrification of the vehicle fleet: The number of buses running on electricity is growing. Up until this point, mainly passenger cars dominated in the realm of electric vehicles (EVs) while trucks and buses used mostly natural gas or biodiesel as an alternative to oil. That’s starting to change with more buses using electricity because of lower costs and environmental goals. The trend is still in its early phase, but increased penetration of fully electric buses is expected over the next decade and a half.
While most electric buses in the world are in China, their adoption is on the rise in the U.S., with cities in almost 30 states using or having ordered buses that are electric or hybrid.
Thanks to a conducive regulatory environment, China so far has led in mixing electric buses into its public fleet. Last year, over 115,000 electric buses were sold there, according to Clean Technica, up about 21,000 versus 2015, and up from just 1,136 five years ago. While most electric buses in the world are in China, their adoption is on the rise in the U.S., with cities in almost 30 states using or having ordered buses that are electric or hybrid. The federal government has gotten in on the action, too, with the Department of Transportation (DOT) last year awarding twenty transit providers in 13 states $55 million for transit buses for replacing old diesel-fueled buses with vehicles that are battery-electric or fuel cell-powered.
According to DOT, city buses have a range of 100 miles or less and maintenance costs are as low as 20 percent of conventional vehicles. Costs are expected to decrease over time with improving battery technology, making electric buses more attractive for cities. Think tank Carbon Tracker says that the average battery price should fall from current levels of about $268 per kilowatt-hour to $100/kWh by 2020.
Proterra, the Tesla of buses
“When we make any big decision, the first question we ask ourselves is what is going to be the most beneficial for widespread adoption of urban electric vehicles?”
The largest manufacturer of electric buses in the U.S. is Proterra, founded in 2004 in Colorado. The company’s CEO recently said that one-third of new buses will be electric by 2020, and predicted all would be by 2030. In an important move last year, one that should help accelerate the adoption of electric buses, Proterra, which dominates the space and has sold almost 400 buses to date, opened its patent for fast-charging stations and interface to competitors. “When we make any big decision, the first question we ask ourselves is what is going to be the most beneficial for widespread adoption of urban electric vehicles?” said Proterra’s CEO Ryan Popple in an interview last year.
The latest model from the company, which is labeled as the “Tesla of buses” and plans to go public this year, can get up to 350 miles on one charge.
Popple is obviously bullish on the electric bus market in the U.S., but notes how the lack of players creates limited competition. That in turn may cause the electrification to occur at a relatively slow pace. “Tesla didn’t want to be the only electric car company [and] we don’t want to be the only electric bus company,” he said.
No range anxiety
City buses that run on electricity typically travel on the same routes every day, making it easier to decide on location of charging stations. This leads to less “range anxiety” that regular motorists might have to contend with when traveling long distances.
Foreign companies are seeking to capture market share in the U.S. as the demand grows for electric buses here. For instance, New Flyer, based in Winnipeg, is one large player. Meanwhile, BYD Auto, a China-based company, has successfully marketed its vehicles to public transit agencies in California, and says its vehicles for 2018 will have a range of 160 miles. California is so far leading in the U.S. in efforts to incorporate buses in city fleets, due to its aggressive emissions goals. As of August of last year, the state had more than 20 electric bus fleets in operation. Despite greater use of electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles, along with increased consumption of CNG and biodiesel, about half of the country’s bus fleet still runs on diesel, according to 2015 estimates.
Against this backdrop, there is no doubt a lot of upside for electric buses. Given the push among cities to reduce emissions and the impetus to lower costs for fuel, the electrification of the bus fleet is set continue, even if the U.S. may take a while to catch other economies, most notably China. “Every major city with the exception of a few laggards is implementing an EV transit strategy,” said Proterra’s Popple.