Successful electric bus pioneers overcome challenges of early adoption
Cities across the country are rolling out electric buses. What can we learn from their early experiences?
Electric buses are a relatively new technological advance. And like every new mode of transportation, electric buses have faced bumps and hurdles, and a fair share of skeptics.
Take the car, for example — the staple of modern American transportation. Today, around 88 percent of Americans own cars. But in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the technology was new, people weren’t immediately sold on cars. According to a 1930 article by Alexander Winton in the Saturday Evening Post, on-lookers often taunted pioneering drivers with cries of: “Get a horse!”
Jeers from the peanut gallery weren’t the only challenges faced by early drivers. Early cars were noisy, unreliable, expensive and plagued by mechanical problems. It was also hard to gas up. The United States simply didn’t have the infrastructure needed for Americans to drive en masse. Over time, as people began to see the potential in these vehicles and investors poured money into their development and production, the problems that had dogged the early cars were ironed out. Flash forward to 2019, and, well, take a look at pretty much any driveway in America and you’ll see how, for better or worse, that turned out.
I don’t know of anyone yelling at early electric bus adopters to “get a diesel bus,” but electric buses certainly have their skeptics. Nascent electric buses have had some issues, like all new technologies do. However, user experiences indicate that those challenges are not insurmountable and are far outweighed by the benefits.
For example, King County Metro, the transit agency in the Seattle area, began testing electric buses in 2016. Metro’s service area covers a range of terrain, including rural areas, dense urban and suburban corridors. In all of these settings, the buses have generally performed well, but with minor problems that, at first, gave the agency “a moment of pause.” In some instances, batteries have depleted faster than expected, and the buses have not been able to travel as far as advertised, particularly during the colder months. But King County Metro has remained committed to electrification and has worked to resolve the issues. The agency says a spirit of collaboration with the manufacturers has been essential to the process, with manufacturers responsive to feedback and working to meet specific needs the agency has identified.
Despite the early performance challenges, King County Metro’s experience has been positive enough that it has decided to go all-in on electric buses. The agency has committed to transitioning to a fully zero-emission fleet by 2040, and to purchasing only zero-emission buses after 2020. A big reason why: the agency includes the environmental and health benefits of buses in its evaluation of costs and benefits, estimating that the total societal cost over the life cycle of a 40-foot diesel bus is $121,000, vs. approximately $18,000-$19,000 for a 40-foot electric bus using renewable energy (which the agency’s energy provider Seattle City Light provides).
School buses are going electric too. And while early adopters are facing some performance challenges similar to King County Metro’s, they’re also seeing significant benefits. Two particular examples highlight both the challenges and opportunities related to switching to electric school buses. In Massachusetts, the state sponsored a pilot program where three school districts received one electric bus each, and their performance was measured over the course of a year. While the buses provided significant greenhouse gas and air pollution reductions, they had mechanical problems and failed to deliver the fuel and maintenance cost savings expected. The mechanical problems can mostly be chalked up to the fact that these were early generation buses. But, when they were running, they performed well, even in cold New England weather conditions. The pilot program’s evaluation found that the cost issues might have been avoided with more detailed upfront planning and collaboration with utilities.
Despite the challenges, all three school districts in Massachusetts chose to keep their electric buses. Concord is even purchasing a second bus and has committed to scaling up to a fleet of at least 80 percent electric buses.
Across the country, Twin Rivers Unified School District outside of Sacramento has had a different experience. Their buses have experienced few problems and produced a 75-80 percent savings on fuel costs (largely due to very favorable utility rates), exceeding the district’s most optimistic expectations. The district reports a total savings of $15,000 per year on energy and maintenance costs. Twin Rivers closely coordinated with its utility from the beginning, even securing a $1 million investment in charging infrastructure. Early success allowed Twin Rivers to continue to scale up its program, and the district now runs a fleet of 25 electric buses.
Electric buses are a new technology. Will there be challenges in implementing the new technology? Of course. Are those challenges insurmountable? Not at all. And the public health and environmental benefits of switching away from diesel to zero-emissions buses should motivate us even more to overcome whatever challenges arise. Consider this: the Chicago Transit Authority estimates that each of its electric buses will save the city around $55,000 every year in avoided healthcare expenses. That big number sounds great, but it actually undersells the benefit. When you think about it in terms of money, it almost sounds like some kid gets his asthma treatment paid for. It’s better than that. Instead, that kid doesn’t have asthma.
Director, Environment Campaigns, PIRG
Matt oversees PIRG's toxics, transportation and zero waste campaigns and leads PIRG’s climate program to promote a cleaner, healthier future for all Americans. Matt lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with his wife, two daughters and chihuahua.