Electrifying Public Transit: Evolving Toward an Electric Bus Fleet

Dec. 27, 2022
In a future where EVs become the norm rather than the exception, public transit agencies will face a range of new variables they will need to juggle.

There are a variety of characteristics that will define the carbon-neutral future, but one stands out: Dramatically increased reliance on electricity. The transportation sector presents a particularly attractive opportunity to make rapid progress in the fight against climate change through electrification.

The transportation sector, as compared to other industries, is especially reliant on fossil fuels and is responsible for 37 percent of CO2 emissions in the United States, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Electrifying this industry would have a significant impact on curbing the country’s total annual carbon emissions.

Moreover, one sub-segment of the transportation market is uniquely positioned for the transition to green mobility: Electric vehicles (EVs) and, more specifically, bus fleets. There are a variety of reasons for this. One being buses have relatively high fuel consumption since they spend a significant amount of time on the road. Approximately 65,000 buses are in operation in the U.S., according to Statista, and they contribute significantly to air pollution, particularly in urban areas. By shifting toward battery-powered buses, public transit agencies can reduce or eliminate the use of fossil fuels significantly and make positive contributions toward air pollution reductions in the communities in which they operate.

The Route to Bus Fleet Electrification

Electric buses are increasingly available from a wide variety of manufacturers, and the business case for using them is compelling. They offer lower fuel costs, reduced maintenance requirements and are expected to remain in service longer than their internal combustion counterparts. Because they travel on set routes, the optimization of the charging infrastructure, the vehicle batteries and the power supply is relatively easy compared to less predictable forms of transport. However, purchasing battery-powered buses is just one step in a much more complex transition.

To start, transit agencies can’t afford to swap their traditional buses for EV models all at once. This transition will need to take place over time, in line with existing vehicle depreciation and replacement schedules. This means transit agencies will need to gradually integrate EV buses into their fleets, running electric and internal combustion vehicles side by side for years or decades. They will also need to modify their operational systems and processes to accommodate newly introduced EVs.

Vehicle charging systems will need to be installed in existing terminals (which often feature challenging space limitations) and potentially in other locations along their route to top off. Rather than installing a lot of stand-alone charging pedestals, it may be more appropriate to consider a more long-term solution geared toward charging large numbers of vehicles.

Modular, customizable solutions are increasingly available and can serve multiple vehicles simultaneously while offering a more compact footprint. These systems also tend to be easier to install and have shorter lead times for delivery, which can help accelerate implementation. They typically can also scale up easily, providing fleet operators with the opportunity to start small, develop appropriate systems and processes and then expand their fleets as circumstances allow.

Merging EVs into Existing Fleets and Processes

In a future where EVs become the norm rather than the exception, public transit agencies will face a range of new variables they will need to juggle. For instance, do they need to invest in charging infrastructure up front based on their anticipated future demand or can they stretch that investment out over time? How will that charging infrastructure fit into their existing processes for things like maintenance, scheduling, depreciation and replacement, vehicle condition monitoring and repair? Do they have the necessary power infrastructure to support the additional demand on the power grid?

Should they supplement with battery storage to offset peak energy demands (and lower costs)? How can they automate energy demands? How will the shift impact their drivers, support staff and mechanics? Do they have the right skill sets in their personnel? What kind of training programs do they need to establish?

These are complex questions that will need to be addressed holistically.

Operators of bus fleets also need to explore their needs in terms of IT, which is likely to play an even greater role in the management of their vehicle fleets than it does today. There are a range of factors to be managed such as vehicle state-of-charge, tracking and analysis of vehicle telematics, orchestration of charging infrastructure, on-site energy optimization and vehicle maintenance scheduling and tracking, all of which depend on sophisticated software tools. Are there benefits to utilizing artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning (ML) capabilities to improve their processes? Fleet operators of all kinds are grappling with these considerations.

Securing (Electric) Fuel Supplies

One additional challenge that public transit agencies need to deal with is getting sufficient power to their vehicles. For fleet operators looking to transition to EV buses, demand for electricity at their facility and potentially along their bus routes will skyrocket. They must begin the planning process with their local power utilities to ensure their needs can be met. Connection queues for utilities in many locations can be more than a year in many cases, even for more traditional, industrial-scale electrical services.

Large fleets could ultimately require so much power that utilities may need to upgrade their distribution systems to meet this demand. Transit agencies may want to explore options such as an onsite battery energy storage system, which could help provide them with the flexibility to charge more vehicles at off-peak times, saving time and putting less pressure on the power grid.

Smoothing the Electrification Path

While the realities of transitioning to EVs may seem daunting, it will almost certainly yield significant rewards in terms of carbon reductions, lower fuel and maintenance costs and more efficient operations. However, the process will also be highly complex and time-consuming and demands that transit agencies approach the transition strategically, with a clear understanding of the variables in play and potential pitfalls. A smart, considered approach to planning and deploying charging infrastructure tailored to their unique needs, coupled with digital platforms to reduce the complexity of the process and early engagement with power utilities and technology partners will be a vital step in that direction.


Anthony Allard is executive vice president and head of North America for Hitachi Energy. 

About the Author

Anthony Allard

Anthony Allard is executive vice president and head of North America for Hitachi Energy. 

Allard was most recently chief operating officer of BECIS, a distributed energy solution provider in Singapore. Having spent most of his career in the power sector at GE and Alstom in the U.S., he held several executive-level positions, including general manager and board member for GE Prolec Transformers in the U.S. He was also general manager for the GE-XD High Voltage Products joint venture (JV) and spent 10 years working for Alstom Grid in both North America and the Americas in Strategy and Operations management roles.