Cities Take the Electric Bus to Fight Climate Change—and Save Money

Falling battery prices and mandates to cut greenhouse gas emissions are making zero-emission vehicles a smart buy.

An electric bus built by BYD in California that averages 170 miles on a full charge. (Photo: Mel Melcon/‘Los Angeles Times’ via Getty Images)

Aug 23, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Katharine Gammon has written for Nature, Wired, Discover, and Popular Science. A new mom, she lives in Santa Monica.

Forget Tesla—the big new thing in electric transportation is the battery-powered bus.

Cars, buses, and trucks account for about a fifth of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. But only 1 percent of the country’s 70,000 buses are electric. The market is growing, though, and electric and hybrid buses are expected to account for 5 percent of new purchases this year.

In Switzerland, supercapacitor charging technology developed by tech giant ABB lets electric buses top off their batteries in just 15 seconds at bus stops between the Geneva airport and the city’s suburbs. When a bus idles to pick up or drop off passengers, a contact on the vehicle’s roof rises and connects with an overhead charger.

Falling battery prices and state mandates to cut pollution and greenhouse gas emissions are prompting transit agencies in the U.S. to take a look at going electric. “It’s actually cheaper for a transit agency to buy and operate an electric bus than a traditional one, over the 12-year life of the bus,” said Matt Horton, vice president of sales at Proterra, a California company that makes electric buses and charging technology. The company calculates that the fuel cost savings over the bus’ life is around $250,000 to $300,000.

Proterra’s buses have a nominal range of 146 miles on a charge—the average transit bus travels about 130 miles a day.

“The vehicles perform well—they recapture energy as they brake, and they’re lighter, faster, and simpler to operate,” said Horton.

To jump-start the industry, Proterra announced last month that it would offer its fast bus-charging technology to competitors royalty free. “For any industry to grow quickly, it’s helpful to not have concerns about standardization and interoperability,” said Horton. He predicts that the transit industry will be the first to go 100 percent emissions-free.

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Transit agencies have historically led the movement toward improving air quality, said Robert Lyles, a spokesman for the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District, which is investing in hydrogen-electric buses. The California Air Resources Board has been meeting with transit agencies on proposed regulations that would require them to begin conversion of all buses to zero-emission technologies. The new regulation could be implemented in late 2016 or in 2017, Lyles said.

The Antelope Valley Transit Authority in Southern California has already approved the replacement of all 85 of its buses to zero-emission technology. In Massachusetts, a pilot program will roll out electric school buses this fall. The world’s biggest electric bus maker, China’s BYD, is assembling battery-powered vehicles in Lancaster, California.

“The transition to zero-emission bus fleets won’t happen overnight, as the technology will continue to evolve over the next few years with wider use of zero-emission bus fleets,” said Lyle. But it’s likely that in a few decades, all urban buses will be clean-running vehicles.