California Transit Agencies Must Convert to Zero-Emission Buses

December 17, 2018 by Susan Carpenter, @CarpenterWheels

California has become the first state in the nation to require public transit agencies to transition to only zero-emission buses, following a vote by its Air Resources Board on Friday.

The regulators told transit agencies to convert by 2040. It’s part of an Innovative Clean Transit measure passed by the board. Starting in 2029, all transit bus purchases in the state need to be zero-emission vehicles.

California already leads the nation in electric vehicle adoption. About 50 percent of all electric vehicles operating in the U.S. are on California roads.

But not many are buses. Of the state’s 14,000 transit buses, only 150 are electric, according to the ARB. Orders have been placed for another 1,000 that are not yet in service.

“We’ve been working to find a way to move forward that works for our air -quality goals but also works for transit agencies,” said Tony Brasil, who heads CARB’s Clean Transportation Technology branch.

One decade later

His division proposed the rule, almost a decade after first looking into the feasibility of zero-emission buses back in 2009.

At that time, however, battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell buses were in their development infancy. Buses running on batteries weren’t commercially available until 2015.

They are now made by industry heavyweights including New Flyer of America, in St. Cloud, Minn.; and all-electric startups such as Proterra, headquartered in Burlingame, Calif., and BYD in China, which is building its buses in Lancaster, Calif.
Seventeen of the roughly 200 transit agencies in California have committed to switching to zero-emission buses.

The largest public transit agency in the state – the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority – has said it will make the switch by 2030. And Its Orange Line will go fully electric even earlier – by 2020, according to LA Metro spokesman Dave Sotero, who says the route will use the new all-electric 60-foot articulated model from New Flyer. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency also is converting to zero-emission buses.

“It’s the right action at the right time,” said Jimmy O’Dea, a senior analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “This technology is really the biggest thing for transit since diesel came along and replaced the trolley buses and rail cars.”

Electric buses are better for both the environment and riders, who don’t have to listen to the noise of a combustion engine or breathe its exhaust, O’Dea said.

“The impacts will be noticeable,” he said.

40,000 miles annually

The average transit bus travels about 40,000 miles per year – three to four times more than the average car, O’Dea said. And each one of those buses also consumes about four times as much fuel per mile.

California can expect to reduce its carbon emissions by 1 million metric tons in 2040 because of this new standard. The heavy-duty transportation sector disproportionately contributes 20 percent of the state’s transportation-related global-warming emissions despite representing just 7 percent of vehicles in the state.

Requiring buses to switch to battery or fuel cell technologies also means improvements in air quality. Trucks and buses are the state’s single largest source of nitrogen oxides, a precursor to ozone pollution, and a major source of particulate matter pollution.

“Cleaning up a single transit bus has a huge impact compared with cleaning up a single passenger car,” O’Dea said.

However, zero-emission transit buses cost significantly more. An average 40-foot diesel-powered model costs about $500,000, according to the ARB. A natural-gas version adds $50,000 to the price, and a battery electric version is at least $250,000 more. But hydrogen fuel cell buses cost the most – more than $1 million each.


To help offset the cost of meeting the new zero-emissions requirement, the ARB is offering a $150,000 incentive for each battery-electric bus that is purchased and $300,000 per bus for hydrogen fuel cell models. It is also offering $30,000 for electric bus chargers and $100,000 for hydrogen fueling stations. Additional incentive money is available through California’s cap and trade program as well as the Federal Transit Administration.

Electric buses cost, on average, 25 percent less to operate and maintain, according to the ARB. And electricity costs are also lower per mile traveled than traditional fossil fuels.

The ARB predicts that most of the electric buses purchased under the new Innovative Clean Transit rule will be battery electrics because they cost less and will be even less expensive in the future as battery costs come down.

“In terms of transportation electrification, other states look to California to see what we’re doing for better or worse, and this is an example of an area that is a promising use case,” said Hannah Goldsmith, deputy executive director of the California Electric Transportation Coalition, a nonprofit trade association representing electric utilities and light-, medium- and heavy-duty commercial vehicle manufacturers.

Goldsmith said her organization is working with utilities in Oregon and Washington state to help transit agencies convert to green vehicles.

Setting a timeline

“The great thing about this kind of a rule is it sets a timeline and says we will be done with fossil fuels by this point – 2040,” said Urvi Nagrani, head of business development for Motiv Power Systems, a Foster City, Calif., company that supplies
electric chassis to final-stage shuttle bus builders such as Champion and Winnebago.

The policy move could help California catch up with ambitious greenhouse gas-reduction goals.

Under the new rule, California’s public transit agencies will need to begin buying electric buses in 2023. That’s when the ARB says that at least 25 percent of an agency’s new bus purchases need to be zero-emission.

The state is not on track to meet its targets even two years from now – for 2020 – because statewide passenger vehicle travel per capita is increasing.

“Meeting future targets will require a greater contribution from the transportation sector,” according to a November progress report for California’s Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act. Without significant changes to how communities and transportation systems are planned, funded and built, the report said, “California will not achieve the necessary greenhouse gas-emissions reductions to meet mandates for 2030 and beyond.”

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