The future belongs to electric transit buses
Posted: 1 September 2017 | Gleb Mytko (Global Industry Analyst with the Freedonia Group) | 4 comments
Gleb Mytko, Global Industry Analyst with the Freedonia Group, speaks to Intelligent Transport about the popularity of electric transit buses and why new, innovative technology will help to continue this upward trend…
The use of electric transit buses has increased dramatically around the world over the last decade. Early models had significant performance shortcomings, but manufacturers have developed a new generation of electric transit buses that are much more capable. As a result, public operators have begun to replace existing conventional transit buses with battery-powered models, and this trend is expected to accelerate in the future.
Chart 1 (below) shows the global share of total bus sales of electric and hybrid models in 2006, 2011, 2016, and 2021 (projected). While a few suppliers offer electric motor coaches, minibuses, or shuttles, the majority of electric models sold around the world are transit buses. As a result, electric and hybrid buses account for a much larger share of transit bus sales than of the overall total.
Electric transit buses offer many advantages
Electric transit buses emit no pollutants and have lower operating and maintenance costs. Because they have no emissions, the use of electric transit buses can greatly reduce air pollution in urban environments; a major concern in most major cities.
Electric models also offer a smoother and quieter riding experience, which makes them popular with riders. High purchase prices are the main reason electric transit buses are not more widely used. An electric model can be more than twice as expensive as a comparable diesel transit bus.
Technological innovation has made electric buses more competitive
A wave of technological innovation has powered the rise of electric transit buses. The development of better-performing models and faster and simplified recharging systems have been of particular importance.
Early electric transit buses had a limited range and poor acceleration, and were unable to operate at higher speeds. However, this is no longer true for newer models. In September 2016, for instance, US-based Proterra unveiled the Catalyst E2 transit bus, which has a range of up to 350 miles – more than double that of older battery-powered buses. With this extended range, the Catalyst E2 is able to serve the full daily mileage requirements of nearly all transit bus applications and is much more convenient to use than electric models that have to be recharged more frequently.
Bus manufacturers have also been able to increase the top speed of electric buses and improve their ability to accelerate. For example, the 2016 model of BYD’s K9 electric transit bus has a top speed of 62mph (100km/h), enabling it to operate on highways, something earlier electric buses could not do. Additionally, the K9 is powered by two 100kW brushless AC synchronous motors that ensure smooth and rapid acceleration.
In the past, inconvenient charging processes and long charging times (up to six hours) have also been a major concern for public bus operators. However, Bombardier, BYD, Scania and Toshiba have all commercialised or announced plans to commercialise wireless charging systems for electric buses.
In December 2016, for example, Scania began to test its wireless inductive charging system in Södertälje, Sweden and Volvo’s 7900 Electric and 7900 Hybrid buses utilise its Opportunity Charging System. The system is designed to be part of ordinary bus stops and can automatically connect to a bus and recharge its battery in less than six minutes.
Proterra offers two rapid charging systems: an overhead on-route charger and plug-in depot chargers. The company’s overhead on-route system offers charge times of 5-13 minutes.
Government programs will drive electric transit bus use globally
In recent years, governments around the world have worked to address air pollution issues and reduce the environmental impact of public transportation, leading to the introduction of a number of programmes designed to help transit system operators replace conventional transit buses with electric models. For example, in 2015 the Chinese government began subsidizing electric bus purchases, encouraging transit systems to replace their diesel, CNG/LNG, and gasoline transit buses. Because of this program, sales of battery-powered models in the country increased dramatically between 2015 and 2016, when they accounted for more than three-fourths of all transit bus sales.
In the US, the Department of Transportation has awarded multi-million dollar grants to cities in Oregon and elsewhere to subsidise electric bus purchases. In July 2016, for instance, the US Department of Transportation awarded Eugene, Oregon’s Lane Transit District (LTD) a $3.5 million grant to purchase five fully-electric buses, and Portland, Oregon’s TriMet transit agency received a $3.4 million grant to replace four older diesel buses with New Flyer XE40 Xcelsior electric models and to build a charging system.
Government financial support is often needed because of the high upfront cost of electric buses. However, manufacturers have had some success in reducing the price difference between conventional and electric buses as new lithium-ion battery plants have come online and battery costs have fallen. This is helping make electric buses more financially attractive to transit system operators.
The US Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that when operating and maintenance costs are taken into consideration, along with the healthcare saving that battery-powered buses can provide residents, the payback period for buying an electric bus over a diesel model is only about two years.
The future is bright
Through technological innovation, manufacturers have been able to dramatically improve the performance capabilities of electric buses, allowing them to capture market share from conventional models.
Global electric bus sales more than doubled between 2006 and 2016, and demand for these products will continue to grow rapidly over the next five years because of their strong environmental credentials and low operating and maintenance costs.
Gleb Mytko is a global industry analyst with the Freedonia Group. He has written nearly 30 studies covering a variety of automotive and equipment industries. For more information on the global bus industry, see Freedonia Group’s #3509 Global Bus Market by Product & Fuel Type, 6th Edition.