• 3 January 2023
  • E-Buses

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Busting 10 myths about electric-powered buses

As countries around the world work to reduce their carbon emissions, most have an eye on reforming the transport sector, which accounts for nearly one-quarter of energy-related carbon emissions globally. Though each country’s path to emissions reduction is unique, most are following the avoid, shift, improve framework for changing consumer behavior and in doing so, promoting more sustainable means of mobility.

Among those innovations being implemented is the electric-powered bus. The TUMI E-Bus Mission has lent its expertise to 20 deep dive cities around the world in recent years, offering support to planners and city officials to assist in the transition to electric buses. The ambitious project will upscale these efforts in hopes of inspiring it’s network cities to procure and deploy more than 100,000 e-buses by 2025 — a move that would result in a reduction of more than 15 megatons of CO2 emissions.

But while they are working to modernize public transport and decarbonize road transport, there are a few myths that cities are combatting as they work to get people on board. Let’s break them down:

1. We already have e-cars. Who needs e-buses?

Electric vehicles, whether they be cars or buses, represent a positive development in the shift away from fossil fuel usage. Yet individualized personal transport doesn’t resolve the issue we’re currently confronting; in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we also need to find ways to cut travel. Buses respond to that well, as they carry more than one person, relieving road congestion and other issues that arise from individualized road transport. One expert looked at both life cycle emissions of vehicles and the targets the US would need to beat in order to meet a 2° C warming target and found that with no change to current travel behaviors, the US alone would require 300 million EVs by 2050 to meet demand, with all newly purchased vehicles after 2035 being electric. That’s a phenomenal task, but one that’s hardly sustainable for the environment or the supply chain. Instead, there has to be a simultaneous aim to lower the number of cars on the road. That’s where a strong public transport system, including electric buses, comes in.

2. Electric buses will run out of charge

Range anxiety is understandable. While the infrastructure supporting electric vehicle usage is still being built out in many places, a range of up to 150 miles (approx. 240 km) can be anticipated for most buses. Depending on the battery size, some e-buses manage to drive up to 550 km on one charge. That’s enough for e-buses run on lithium-ion batteries that operate within a city (as opposed to inter-city) to run their daily routes. These inner-city buses regularly return to a depot, where they can be charged and serviced. And as technology advances, the time to recharge is ever shrinking, with current estimates at around just three hours. to a depot, where they can be charged and serviced. And as technology advances, the time to recharge is ever shrinking, with current estimates at around just three hours.

E-Bus in Costa Rica, GIZ MiTransporte, Image by Julieth Méndez

3. The technology is very expensive

Although the initial purchase of an electric bus is currently more expensive than that of a traditional diesel-fueled bus, the price differential has decreased in recent years. Factoring in the everyday costs, you’ll quickly offset this difference through fuel cost savings as well as reduced maintenance and see that an e-bus is a long-term investment in the future. There are already cases identified in global south where the total cost of ownership of an e-bus is lower as compared to diesel bus. Also, some innovative procurement approaches for e-buses, like India’s aggregated procurement program, has already revealed the operational cost of e-buses can be on par to those of diesel buses.

4. Maintenance is difficult

E-buses require less maintenance, though what they do require is different skillset — especially when it comes to proper protocols for maintaining charging stations. A handbook identifying the need to retrain mechanics and other stakeholders in India as more cities roll out their e-bus fleet was created as part of the SMART SUT Project of GIZ India; it notes that awareness of safety and maintenance protocols is key. Preventing delays in repairs and upkeep through proper training will ensure the longevity of e-buses isn’t compromised. Further, innovative business models like gross cost contracts, full leasing, buy & lease involving the private sector have greatly reduced the risk of manpower training related to the technical maintenance of e-buses and the supporting infrastructure.

5. Can’t replace the traditional yellow school bus

Access to education is key to a child’s development. As city planners consider the best means of transportation to ensure children in both urban and rural areas can travel to school safely, many in North America opt for the ubiquitous yellow school bus. The World Resources Institute is aiming to change that, trading out the 480,000 highly-polluting school buses in service in the United States today for buses that rely on electric mobility.

6. Unsafe for children

Opponents of adopting the e-bus in the US have argued that these buses are less safe for children, yet there has been no evidence showing that. With the ability to digitalize the e-bus as well, there are programs that can even make the e-bus safer, as operators can do real-time tracking to optimize their route if there are delays or safety hazards. Moreover, there are e-bus models already on the market which provide a variety of safety features like emergency hopper windows, magnet-controlled emergency switches, driver behavior monitoring systems, anti-collision warning systems, automatic fire extinguishers in the battery compartment, sensors for detecting flammable and explosive gases, and the like.

E-Bus in Florianópolis, Image by GIZ Brazil

7. Not enough infrastructure

The nice thing about incorporating e-buses into your public transport system is that they can also replace the existing fleet. As the buses frequently use the same chassis system, it’s possible to retrofit existing buses. And electrifying or retrofitting diesel buses, even mini-buses such as those used in megacities like Jakarta, allows for the continued use of route lines already in existence. The only additional infrastructure needed would be charging stations and related upstream electrical infrastructure; during their implementation, it’s also possible to rethink popular travel routes for optimal performance.

8. Not compatible for use in bad weather

With climate change causing more extreme weather around the world, this is a valid concern. At the same time, route planners can take into consideration which transit areas might be most impacted by floods or other natural disasters as they update the public transport routes. Bad weather may be inevitable but the technology behind e-buses is as reliable as that of other past forms of mobility — and perhaps more adaptable to fluctuations that might occur due to fossil fuel delivery issues. Some examples of e-bus operations in cities with extreme weather conditions are Shenyang, China, which records low temperatures of -32℃ and operates over 130 e-buses or Delhi, India, which can see temperatures up to 49℃ and operates over 150 e-buses.

9. With scalability a problem, investments can wait

While many cities have been able to make initial investments in e-buses thanks to support from local government grants, this isn’t something that’s viable for future purchases. As many places look to scale up their fleets, there may also be an urge to wait for new technologies that lower the upfront cost. But with time running short to take active measures that cap warming at 1.5℃, it will not be prudent to wait for lower up-front purchase prices. With international investors (such as pension funds or state funds) looking for green investment opportunities, e-bus ecosystems (vehicles and charging infrastructure) are emerging as a potentially new asset class, but until then here are some tips to ensure e-bus projects financial viability.

10. E-buses can simply be deployed on existing routes

As much as this might be possible, ideally it’s best to consider optimizing travel routes when e-buses are implemented. Taking into account the size of a battery, route length, the locations and size of charging stations, the flow of traffic, e-bus charging & dispatch strategy and other operational questions will ensure that the e-buses are not only in use but used to the best of their ability.

Further Resources

Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, Integrated Sustainable Urban Transport Systems (SMART-SUT). August 2021.Training Needs Assessment for Electric Buses in India: Volume 1 – Identification of Training Needs. https://www.transformative-mobility.org/publications/training-needs-assessment-for-electric-buses-in-india-volume-i-identification-of-training-needs

E-Bus Checklist | Transformative Urban Mobility Initiative (TUMI) (transformative-mobility.org)

Frith, James; McKerracher, Colin; O’Donovan, Aleksandra. October 2018. Electric Buses in Cities – Driving Towards Cleaner Air and Lower CO2. https://www.transformative-mobility.org/publications/electric-buses-in-cities-driving-towards-cleaner-air-and-lower-co2

Jakarta Globe. August 18, 2022. Transjakarta to Retrofit Diesel Buses with Electric Power Train. https://jakartaglobe.id/business/transjakarta-to-retrofit-diesel-buses-with-electric-powertrain

Robinson, Blake. August 2019. Accra, Ghana: Moving more people with high quality buses. https://www.transformative-mobility.org/publications/accra-ghana-moving-more-people-with-high-quality-buses

Shailesh Modi, Rohan. August 11, 2022. The Grand Challenge: An Aggregated Approach to E-Bus Procurement in India. https://www.transformative-mobility.org/news/the-grand-challenge-an-aggregated-approach-to-e-bus-procurement-in-india

Anthony Courreges, November 2020. C40 Knowledge Hub. Six tips for your electric bus project’s financial viability. https://www.c40knowledgehub.org/s/article/Six-tips-for-your-electric-bus-project-s-financial-viability-in-the-green-recovery?language=en_US