Charging Up Cities for Electric Fleets

Dec. 18, 2015
With electric buses a viable option for transit fleets across North America, agencies are preparing their cities, staff and facilities for a sea change in how they do business.


When it comes to pollution, the state of California has ramped up efforts to clear the air in recent years.

Stringent regulations have forced many public and private entities to rethink how they operate in an effort to reduce pollution and simultaneously reduce costs.

And while public transportation can help clean up air pollution by taking more cars off the road, California transit agencies found themselves also facing strict policies regarding pollutants.

One of those agencies — the Antelope Valley Transit Authority (AVTA) — looked at the new rules and decided it wasn’t just going to comply with the rules, it was going to become a leader in new clean technology and invest big on electric buses.

“Well, obviously for us, with the BYD factory maybe 6 miles away, our board was interested in creating local jobs,” said Len Engel, executive director of AVTA. “So they saw that getting into a program with purchasing electric buses as an economic stimulus to our area and they asked us to look into it.”

AVTA decided to pursue electric bus technology in 2014 after the agency was awarded $1.9 million from Los Angeles County as part of Proposition A local returns. Two buses were purchased at $840,000 each via an assignment between BYD and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro).

BYD opened a manufacturing facility in Lancaster in 2013 and by April 2014, Gov. Jerry Brown came to the facility as the first 40-foot bus for AVTA was completed.

In August 2014, AVTA and BYD decided to do a 24-hour marathon test of the bus from Rosamond, California, to Palmdale, California, during the course of the weekend. During three shifts of testing, the bus totaled 746 miles of service, with it ranging between 240 and 256 miles each test shift.

By October 2014, the buses were ready for service and began a 12-month testing period while in service.

In February, the AVTA Board of Directors gave unanimous approval to purchase another eight electric buses as part of a plan to convert its fleet of diesels by 2019.

By July, AVTA found itself receiving another grant for $24.4 million from the California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA) to purchase another 29 electric buses. The money was awarded from the Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program (TIRCP).

Engel said the $1.9 million grant from Los Angeles County allowed AVTA to purchase two BYD buses and inductive charging units manufactured by WAVE. Both buses are currently in operation and the charging units are in the process of being installed.

A Unique Challenge

Located in Lancaster, California in northern Los Angeles County, AVTA has a service area of about 1,200 square miles with a population of more than 450,000 residents. It has 12 local transit routes, four commuter routes and two school routes.

Getting into the cutting edge of electric bus technology can cause some concerns for transit agencies given diesel and compressed natural gas-powered units have been used en mass across North America for years while no transit agency has yet to use electric buses on a widespread basis.

“Well, the range for us has obviously been a concern,” Engel said. “We’ve got some fairly long routes with some fairly long service times, so that’s an issue.

“Our goal is to have in-service charging with the inductive chargers placed tactfully around our service area as a layover where a bus gets 10 minutes to charge.

Outside of service areas, AVTA is also going through the engineering in order to prepare for mass charging of the electric fleet on off hours.

“We’re developing a charging facility that can charge up to 85 buses and to begin with, it’s pricey,” Engel said. “We’re currently talking about the local utility having to run a line to our facility that will be north of 12,500 volts.
“That was at our initial consideration for 50 buses. Now we’re looking at 85.”

In 2015, the city of Macon, Georgia tested a BYD electric bus for a week along its busiest route, which included stops at several colleges and technical schools.

Rick Jones, general manager and chief executive officer of the Macon-Bibb County Transit Authority (MTA), said the city is part of a Strong Cities, Strong Communities initiative set forth by the federal government to help struggling communities and part of the initiative looked at considering electric buses opposed to standard diesel buses. He said they looked at what the city of Tallahassee, Florida, has done with its electric buses and toured the plants of other electric bus manufacturers, but BYD brought a bus and charger to town and let the agency use it for a week.

It was placed on the Eisenhower Corridor route in Macon, also known as the Macon Mall route. Jade Daniels, operations manager for the Macon Bibb County Transit Authority, said It’s an 1.5 hrs. long. It serves many of the educational Institutes such as Central Georgia Tech, Virginia College, Middle Georgia University and Mercer University. It also serves the popular shopping areas, medical facilities and doctors’ offices. It’s the most heavily ridden route with about 12,000 to 15,000 passengers a month and seems to be a one stop route. You can go to school, doctor appointments, grocery shop, restaurants, visit the Macon Mall, most anything you may need is all in one route.

“With the passenger volume, and the hours to complete one shift we wanted to put the capabilities of the battery to the test and see just how much use we could get from a full charge,” Daniels said. “Surprisingly we were able to get nearly 9 hours and 168 miles from it.

One of the best parts of the test, Jones said is the BYD bus performed as the manufacturer had said it would. It operated for eight to nine hours per day, then was charged for four hours at night.

“It was very heavily ridden and very well received by the passengers,” Jones said. “They got free rides out of it and they were very appreciative. We loved it and the driver was very, very enthusiastic about it.”

Daniels said the agency chose some of its top operators, they trained with the BYD representative John Hatch. It was simple and easy to understand. Not a lot of training needed other than to understand how to plug and unplug the charger to the battery, overview of the instrument panel and a few tips on how and when coasting helps to conserve the battery.

“The passengers were overwhelmed and loved it, was a smooth quiet ride, and we really did not expect to get that many hours out of the battery, the proof was in the pudding,” Daniels said. “It also took about 4 hours to fully charge back up, which of course is important to us. If we we’re to purchase at least two, we could have one fully charged and ready to go by the time another was ready to be charged and prevent downtime own during a route.”

In Denver, the Regional Transportation District (RTD), tested BYD buses on the 16th Street Mall route. The mall is about 1.3 mile long connecting two RTD stations, Union Station and Civic Center Station. The route has a stop at every intersection.

Lou Ha, manager of technical services for RTD, said the test showed the operating range of the electric bus depended on driver’s driving habits. Aggressive driving resulted in shorter range than mild driving habit.

RTD also discovered the electric bus was so quiet that adding artificial noise may be necessary for pedestrian warning.

We determined the appropriate route that could be supported by the electric bus,” he said. “ We prepared charging equipment and facility to ensure bus would be properly charged within time frame when bus not in service. We trained drivers on the proper driving of the electric bus. We educated the fire departments on the battery technology to allow better comfort with fire safety of the new technology. We trained technicians in the safety caution when working with electric bus.”

Picking technology

Electric bus technology does require a larger capital investment for a transit agency given the need to install chargers and equipment for facilities coupled with an overall sticker price on the bus itself compared to a diesel or CNG unit. Engel said despite the cost, AVTA is expecting the buses to pay out over the lifetime of the buses as they run in service.

“We’re looking at a bus that’s going to last 12 years and we believe that over the life of that bus, it’s going to be less expensive to operate the electric buses compared to operating the diesels,” he said. “Yes, it’s a lot of investment, but the results we have with some of our old buses, we have buses in the 800,000-mile range and that particular class of bus is about $1.54 per mile to operate in maintenance and fuel costs, and the electrics so far cost about 35 cents per mile in maintenance and electricity. So, if you lean that out over a 12-year period and obviously we’re going to have to expand the fleet.”

The electric bus world currently has two big systems running against each other — quick charging units and long charged units. Quick charging units will recharged at a faster pace on shorter intervals while in route, while the longer charge vehicles are charged when taken out of service.

Jones said one of the advantages of trying a unit that holds a charge longer is it didn’t require any other modifications to the facility outside of the charging unit BYD brought in for the test.

“When you have the quick charges you have to have a really beefed up power plant in place once it’s in your route because you pull in there are charge that battery in five minute intervals then you’re back out on that route, so basically you’re running those chargers constantly,” he said. “So it’s a pretty big changeover to start a system with fast chargers with a big power plant in place and you have to have the property to do it and the equipment and expertise to put them in so it can be a little more difficult.”

Jones said students loved the bus because of the technology and the zero-emissions rating.

While an electric bus and charger cost around $800,000 compared to $420,000 for a clean diesel bus, Jones said it still makes sense because the return on investment is much better on electric buses than the traditional diesel.
AVTA is looking at a competitive procurement with its next bid for more electric buses, but Engel said the agency has a great relationship with BYD.

“They’re close, so their engineers are here in a heartbeat and that and all others things together, we have a favorable relationship, he said. “And in the BYD case, they’re warrantying the battery for 12 years and I’m not sure any of the others are doing that yet.

“Obviously, the market leader sets the pace and the fact that we wouldn’t have to pay to replace the battery pack, that’s a big difference in terms of total operating cost.”

An issue with in route charging, Jones said, is the costs associated with refueling the bus. When recharging a bus in the daytime during peak demand it’s going to cost more to recharge the bus as opposed to overnight when demand is lower and prices go down.

Daniels said there seemed to be an additional benefit running test on a route serving college students. The agency has a great partnership with Mercer University and are looking to add more service to the students , faculty, and the downtown area.

“The quietness, promoting clean air, go green efforts, while serving the community from Mercer to downtown makes a loud statement that we care and are concerned about with our city,” Daniels said.
Daniels said every day creates opportunities, but could you imagine the public’s response to a quiet, clean, smooth ride with peace of mind as they study, answer email’s, catch up on homework? Overall I think it would make us better Stewards in our community. I tell my staff, when one shines we all shine, the entire city would be affected by these buses.

When testing this technology, Daniels said go for the routes that gives you more for your test, in other words get the most use of the battery, the heaviest ridership, and the most miles. To use an electric bus on our routes the battery hours and total miles are a top priority. We have to maintain our schedules and be on time therefore having to switch a bus out or stopping to charge. If it’s not quick and easy it would not work for us, we have to keep Macon moving.
When it comes to implementing this type of technology, Daniels said the agency considers, Battery Life, Charging stations and time, fuel savings, and promoting clean air.

“The process of purchasing electric buses can be slow due to budgeting and regulations, it’s also a new industry so it takes a lot of time to review, test, and trust. BYD was the only company to allow us the time for testing which was about a week,” she said. “And the charging stations can be costly but BYD was more reasonable for budget purposes.

“The operator’s thoroughly enjoyed the comfort and didn’t find it to be difficult at all on route.”

Ha said to Train the drivers in the driving of the electric buses to maximize the operating ranges. Heating and air conditioning will have substantial impact on the bus operating range, so consider testing the bus in both cold and hot weathers to learn the effect of heating and cooling.

“Different route characteristics will result in different operating range, so test the electric bus on the specific route (s) being considered for electric bus service,” he said. “Consider adding noise to the electric bus and educate pedestrians on the electric bus operation.”

Making the change

A switch to electric buses means AVTA has to retrain bus operators in how to drive the units in order to get optimum efficiency out of their power. Engel said you can see a significant variance in range depending on the operator, sometimes up to 40 percent.

Engel said the current BYD buses in service are moved around to different routes, but some were initially placed on routes where they could do some midday charging. However, the right operator is what can make sure the bus will make more than 200 miles on a charge.

“As I said, we bring the new operators in to learn the techniques,” Engel said. “If they’re not well trained we can see some go well below 130-125 mile range between what a new operator can do and what an experienced operator can do.”

More seasoned electric bus operators train the other drivers, Engel said, so they can get as long of range out of the buses.

“We had a couple of people that caught on really quickly, so we used some of the operators to train the other operators, so we used some of the operators to train other operators,” Engel said. “It worked out very well.”
Maintenance personnel is also being trained for repairs to the electric buses given they now deal with electric motors as opposed to diesel technology. Engel said BYD has been very helpful in training the technicians.

“We’ve had excellent service in terms of the training that comes as part of the buses,” he said.

As electric vehicles grow in prominence both commercially and privately, some communities are faced with concerned residents who worry about rumors of safety issues associated with electric drive vehicles. Engel said AVTA hasn’t heard of any concerns from Lancaster residents.

“It has been very well received throughout our service area,” he said. “There are folks who will even wait for the electrics. They’ll let another bus pass if they know the electric is coming.
“It has been very positive.”

Engel said AVTA isn’t building a new facility to house the electric vehicles, but fitting charging stalls at for the BYD buses. The stalls are flat spaces where the buses can be plugged in and left to charge. The agency is working on a charging strategy for its eventual introduction of widespread electric buses.

There are no additional concerns about security either, despite the addition of high voltage draws into the facility. Engel said AVTA is already a fully fenced facility and in order for the bus to charge it has to be connected with the power source.

Ha said Electric buses at the current time are not for general transit service. They still have limited ranges, suitable only for a number of routes. Transit agencies should consider how to recharge the batteries, at the end of the day or opportunity charging during service, or both. Bus accessories and comfort features such as heating and air conditioning would deplete the batteries sooner, so consideration should be made in the efficiency and temperature settings for the HVAC to get the most benefit out of these systems.

Ha added that utility company may not have sufficient capacity in the area to support electric buses, and adding capacity by the utility is a long drawing process. Fire departments are not familiar with the fire safety of the battery technologies, so educating them in battery technologies early in the process is necessary. Electric buses are so quiet that that they may pose a new risk on the road.

“Adding sound to warn pedestrian is not a bad idea”, he stated. “Maintenance on the electric buses will be different from conventional internal combusted engine buses, and a new class of technicians well versed in electro mechanical process may be needed.”

The new technology on the buses hasn’t created any issues in terms of federal regulation, Engel said, but for the Wave chargers there have been challenges with UL listing.

“We’re having challenges not on the bus side, but in the charging side,” Engel said. “On the charging side there have been some challenges, but nothing significant at this point.”

Engel said the $39.4 million project is getting attention across California for what AVTA is trying to accomplish, so Calstart is working with the agency to do data collection and monitoring its process to get the word out to the other agencies on how it’s working.

“I think the range has really been the most surprising thing,” Engel said. I didn’t believe we’d get over 150 miles on a charge, but we’re doing that pretty consistently.

“I think besides the range the operation cost as well. It’s certainly a surprise at 35 cents per mile.”

Engel said AVTA’s last grant for electric buses goes to 13 60-foot articulated units and 16 45-foot commuter buses. Articulated buses will be used on Route one as AVTA plans to implement a bus rapid transit (BRT) line along the route. The coaches will shuttle riders to the San Fernando Valley and downtown Los Angeles. The first buses are expected to be delivered in 2016.

“We’re going away from diesel fuel to electricity so in a recent grant application, the state of California, their quote was ‘this is exactly where California needs to go,’” Engel said. “They were very supportive of what we’re doing here. It’s so much better than diesel in terms of air pollution.”As AVTA keeps phasing in the new technology and bring its bus fleet into a new future of clean technology, the agency will continue to find ways to make the most of the technology and to discover ways the technology can go into fleets across the continent.

“One of the great things with testing an electric bus is we get a heat in the summer and we get clod in the winter, so we’re testing across the climates,” Engel said. “It is certainly an advantage for the industry. The biggest challenge for us the range and how to crack that nut.”

Macon-Bibb County Transit sought a TIGER grant and LoNo grant for the federal government to purchase electric buses because the community is very supportive of using them.

“I’m always doubtful whenever you have a hew system come into the market because there’s a tendancy of those trying to sell it to overpromise,” Jones said. “But what we saw was a bus that came in here and did exactly what they said it would do, so I was pleased with it.”