Ohio Transit Agencies Launch Electric Buses



Two Ohio transit systems will deploy their first battery-electric buses this year as the state’s senior U.S. senator launches a $ 73 billion plan to speed zero-emission transit vehicles through the country.

Transit agencies have taken steps for years to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution, but budget constraints and logistical challenges have slowed the transition. Less than 2% of the country’s 155,000 buses and paratransit vehicles are zero-emission vehicles, according to a May 2021 report from the Center for Transportation and the Environment.

Ohio transit agencies once struggled with weak state funding before the pandemic upended ridership patterns and left the area facing an existential crisis across much of the country.

“Our transit systems have to do more and more work with less and less money,” said Akshai Singh, a Cleveland-based national transit justice organizer for the Alliance for a Just Society, who helped coordinate a letter from 29 organizations that urged US Sen Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, last month to prioritize public transit funding that would include zero-emission fleets.

Brown has helped secure funding for the Central Ohio Transit Authority in Columbus and Laketran east of Cleveland to purchase several electric buses and charging stations that will begin operating this year. He is also co-author with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of a $ 73 billion plan presented this month to electrify the nation’s entire transit fleet by 2035.

Stations at several locations in Lake County will allow Laketran’s new electric buses to be recharged quickly, while drivers will take breaks to stretch their legs every two hours. The chargers shown here are at the Wickliffe Park-N-Ride facility in Laketran. Credit: Laketran / Courtesy

Electric buses take to the roads

The Central Ohio Transit Authority’s first electric bus rolled off the assembly line this spring. This one and another will soon begin yearlong trials in the Columbus area, spokesman Jeff Pullin said. The goal: “Run 140 miles on a single charge in all weather conditions.”

“We have to make sure our service is not affected by the recharge,” Pullin said. “So that would allow us to travel specific surface roads without having to go back and reload, or go back and change vehicles.”

Planned tests include heating in winter and air conditioning in summer. If they are functioning well, the transport company plans to acquire eight more electric buses in 2022. At the same time, the system has bought around 20 new compressed natural gas buses each year since 2013, so that more than half of its coaches are now CNG.

Neighborhoods in urban areas are the most affected by pollution, Pullin said. “And there are many people who use our service the most. We don’t want them to depend on vehicles that make it hard for them to breathe. “

The goal is to be diesel-free by 2025, he said. Diesel emissions are among the types of pollution that disproportionately affect people of color in the United States, according to an April 28 report in Science Advances. People of color and low-income groups are also more likely to experience energy insecurity and be negatively affected by the effects of climate change.

“The air quality around the bus is also important to me,” said Ben Capelle, general manager of Laketran in Lake County. “You don’t want to wait for a bus while another bus blows black smoke in your face.” Projections also show that electric buses are expected to become cheaper to use over time, he said.

Laketran’s new electric buses will not charge at a central location. Instead, a half-dozen charging stations across the Lake County system’s territory will offer short bursts of rapid charging, with road drivers taking breaks to stretch their legs every two hours.

“We are really the first in Ohio to use this type of bus,” said Capelle. “There is a lot of energy that is put into the bus in a short period of time.” The first of 10 buses arrives this month. These 10 will make up the majority of full-size coaches operating in the county. (Electricity is not yet an option for buses to Cleveland in Cuyahoga County, he said.)

The seats in the back of this bus are on a raised platform to accommodate the hydrogen fuel cell and other equipment below. Driving is quieter because fuel cells do not make the noise that most car engines make. Credit: Kathiann M. Kowalski / courtesy

Fuel cells on the road

Electrification is not the only technology used to reduce emissions from public transport. The Stark Area Regional Transit Authority, known as SARTA, added its first hydrogen fuel cell bus in 2016. The system now has 19 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, including 13 full size coaches, said Kurt Conrad, executive director and CEO of SARTA.

Hydrogen buses are “relatively reliable,” Conrad said. So far, none of their minor maintenance issues have been linked to the hydrogen-fuel electrical system. And customer journeys are quieter than those of traditional diesel buses.

Every time SARTA replaces a diesel bus now, it buys either hydrogen buses or CNG, Conrad said. Availability was the most important factor in deciding between the two.

“Manufacturers don’t want to develop a product that they don’t know there is a market for,” Conrad said. “It’s a bit of a chicken and egg thing.”

Commercial availability is also a factor for plug-in electric buses, said Andrew Conley, program director for Clean Fuels Ohio, a nonprofit group that advises transportation fleets. Even so, transit systems may have more opportunities to purchase larger electric coaches than smaller electric paratransit vehicles.

“We’re really talking about feasibility, cost and benefit as fundamentals” in any conversation for fleets, said Conley. Yet most fleets have some ability to reduce emissions. “Usually there is a spectrum going from minimal investment and operational change to large investment and operational change.

The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority got its first compressed natural gas buses in 2015. Credit: Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority / Courtesy

Propane, CNG and biogas

Laketran has switched from diesel to propane for about half of its 100 or so smaller paratransit vehicles, which provide door-to-door service when needed. The combustion of propane produces fewer pollutants than diesel or gasoline.

“The propane is cleaner which is fantastic,” said Capelle. “But propane is also cheaper.” The fuel savings were around 35%, he noted.

The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority got its first compressed natural gas buses in 2015, and about half of its large bus fleet will be CNG by January. Each vehicle that replaces an older diesel bus has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by about a third, said George Fields, deputy general manager of human resources. Compared to the old diesel buses they replaced, these savings are equivalent to 100 tonnes of carbon dioxide per bus per year, he noted.

Compressed natural gas and propane both come from fossil fuels. However, said Conley, most of the electricity in Ohio and elsewhere in the PJM region also comes from fossil fuels, unless someone produces theirs or commits to purchasing the electricity. renewable. Likewise, although most of the hydrogen in fuel cells today comes from natural gas, fuel cells produce about twice the energy that burning natural gas would provide.

Compared to diesel, the emission reductions can be huge. An online calculator from the Argonne National Laboratory allows fleets to compare the expected lifetime emissions of CNG, electric and diesel buses, taking into account the pollution in use of diesel vehicles against calculations theoretical labs for new diesel vehicles.

Biofuels also produce emissions. If the gas is renewable, however, additional net emissions can be avoided. In this sense, Archaea Energy announced the opening on May 13 of its facility in Ashland, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Ohio. The plant produces pipeline-grade renewable natural gas from approximately 1,400 tonnes of waste that goes into a Rumpke Waste & Recycling landfill in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia daily.

Until now, methane from the landfill was simply collected and burned, said Brian McCarthy, co-founder and chief investment officer of Archaea Energy. “This gas happens whether we like it or not, so we should do something” with it, he said. “It would replace either natural gas or diesel.”

A report by the Center for Transportation and the Environment, prepared for Senator Brown and Schumer’s transit plan, estimated that it would cost the national public transportation fleet between $ 56 billion and $ 89 billion to switch to a mix of electric batteries and fuel cells. vehicles by 2035.

Meanwhile, several states are already calling for the transition. A new Maryland law requires most new purchases for the state’s transit systems to be zero-emission vehicles starting in fiscal 2023.

“At some point there won’t be an internal combustion industry,” said Conrad of SARTA, noting the trend. “Public transport goes to zero emissions.”


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