When it comes to transit buses, fossil fuels’ expected trip to the back seat could take longer than expected.
Adoption of fully electric buses is gaining speed, but they will only capture about 15 percent of the U.S. market by 2025, according to Navigant Research.
More than 95 percent of global electric bus sales are in China. Electric buses account for about 70 percent of its total bus market, or about 100,000 a year, Navigant found.
“This growth is driven largely by government policy — incentives and or fuel efficiency standards,” Scott Shepard, senior research analyst for Navigant, told Trucks.com.
In the U.S., California leads the pack. The California Air Resources Board last year approved a $208-million spending package for bus and truck fleets to go green and help the state meet its ambitious emissions reduction goals.
As of May, more than three dozen of the 163 public transit agencies in the state were operating 132 battery-electric and fuel cell electric buses. Transit agencies have an additional 655 electric buses either on order, awarded or planned, the air board says.
“The trend for electrics is definitely moving up,” said Jeff Hiott, assistant vice president of technical services and innovation for the American Public Transportation Association.
In 2017, about 40 percent of U.S. transit agencies either had electric buses in operation or had awarded purchase contracts, Hiott told Trucks.com. About 1,200 electric buses are in operation nationwide.
“That doesn’t seem big, but it’s a pretty steep upward climb when you go back just two or three years,” Hiott said. “The transportation industry in general has a very sustainable agenda. What we’re seeing is agencies looking at ways to be more environmentally friendly, and battery-electric buses are a way to do that,” he said.
School districts also are a growing customer for electric buses. Major manufacturers, including Navistar International Corp. and Daimler Trucks North America, are targeting that market.
“What’s really changing is the affordability of the technology,” said Steve Gilligan, vice president of product marketing at Navistar.
Since electric powertrains have fewer moving parts they require less maintenance and repair. Navistar believes less downtime will offset the additional upfront cost.
California has spent $25 million to incentivize school districts to replace conventional school buses with low- or zero-emissions ones. The California Energy Commission also has spent $75 million.
Electric buses are an attractive option for fleet operators for several reasons, Shepard said. There is the lower cost of fuel and maintenance compared with diesel buses. Buses also can be used for so-called grid balancing. That can diminish fleets’ energy costs by recharging buses at low-demand times when power is plentiful and least expensive.
A study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that electric buses were eight times more energy efficient than those that ran on natural gas; they also reduced spare parts consumption by 80 percent per mile.
While the upfront costs are declining, they remain steep. A battery-electric bus still costs about $700,000 after incentives, according to Foothill Transit, which has several electric buses in service in suburban Los Angeles.
A comparable compressed natural gas bus runs about $550,000 and a diesel bus about $490,000, according to the American Public Transportation Association.
Improving technology and individual cities’ policies also are helping drive transit agencies toward electric buses, Hiott said.
Throughout the country, cities are mandating their public transit fleets become emissions free on specific timelines. Los Angeles has said it will go fully electric by 2030, and New York City has set a 2040 goal.
But there still are issues around implementing and operating battery-electric buses, including providing charging infrastructure and determining whether plug-in buses will be charged in route or at the ends of their routes at central charging depots.
“It’s different from putting a fuel tank in and filling up a diesel bus. Power companies are also having to learn more about transit agencies to understand not just the power needs but the rate structures,” Hiott said.
“Many of these technologies, like battery-electric vehicles, have been around for decades, but reaching economies of scale, those require some initial assistance to really help accelerate that commercialization curve,” said Christina Wolfe, a transportation analyst with the Environmental Defense Fund.
Following research and development, “there’s a demonstration phase, then there’s more general market acceptance and then full-scale market adoption. It really depends on things like getting early adopters to validate the benefits of technologies,” she said.
While the market for electric buses is small now — consulting firm EB Start puts current U.S. market penetration at less than one percent — manufacturers see growth, and there is growing competition among them.
California is a hotbed, with companies such as Proterra, China’s BYD, Ebus, Canada’s Green Power Motor Co. and New Flyer Industries all establishing operations in the state and vying for electric bus customers.