Electrification of public transport: development towards a fleet of electric buses | Daily News Byte

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There are various characteristics that will define a carbon-free future, but one stands out: a dramatically increased reliance on electricity. The transport sector presents a particularly attractive opportunity for rapid progress in the fight against climate change through electrification.

The transportation sector, compared to other industries, is particularly reliant on fossil fuels and is responsible for 37 percent of CO2 emissions in the United States, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). The electrification of 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, the bus fleet. There are various reasons for this. Buses have relatively high fuel consumption because they spend a significant amount of time on the road. Approximately 65,000 buses operate in the US, according to Statista, and they contribute significantly to air pollution, especially in urban areas. By switching to battery-powered buses, public transit agencies can significantly reduce or eliminate the use of fossil fuels and make a positive contribution to reducing air pollution in the communities in which they operate.

The road to the electrification of the bus fleet

Electric buses are increasingly available from a large number of manufacturers, and the business case for their use 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 along fixed routes, optimizing charging infrastructure, vehicle batteries and power supplies is relatively easy compared to less predictable forms of transport. However, purchasing a battery-powered bus is only one step in a much more complex transition.

For starters, transit agencies can’t afford to replace their traditional buses with EV models all at once. This transition will need to happen over time, in accordance with the existing schedule of vehicle depreciation and replacement. That means transit agencies will have to gradually integrate EV buses into their fleets, running electric vehicles and internal combustion vehicles side by side for years or decades. They will also need to modify their operating systems and processes to accommodate the newly introduced electric vehicles.

Vehicle charging systems will need to be installed at existing terminals (often characterized by challenging space constraints) and potentially at other locations along their route to complete. Instead of installing many stand-alone charging stations, it may be more appropriate to consider a long-term solution aimed at charging a large number of vehicles.

Modular, adaptable 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, which can help speed up implementation. They are also usually easily scalable, giving fleet operators the opportunity to start small, develop appropriate systems and processes, and then expand their fleet as circumstances allow.

Integration of electric vehicles into existing fleets and processes

In a future where electric vehicles become the norm rather than the exception, public transit agencies will be faced with a host of new variables to juggle. For example, should they invest in charging infrastructure up front based on their expected future demand, or can they stretch that investment 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 battery storage to offset peak energy needs (and lower costs)? How can they automate energy needs? How will the shift affect their drivers, support staff and mechanics? Do they have the right skills in their staff? What training programs should they establish?

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

Bus fleet operators should also explore their needs in terms of IT, which is likely to play an even bigger role in managing their fleet than it does today. There are a number of factors to manage, such as vehicle state of charge, vehicle telematics monitoring and analysis, charging infrastructure orchestration, on-site energy optimization, and vehicle maintenance scheduling and monitoring, all of which depend on sophisticated software tools. Does it benefit from using artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning (ML) capabilities to improve their processes? Operators of all types of fleets struggle with these considerations.

Provision of (electrical) fuel supplies

An additional challenge that public transportation agencies must address is obtaining sufficient power for their vehicles. For fleet operators looking to switch to EV buses, the demand for electricity in their facilities and potentially along their bus routes will skyrocket. They must begin the planning process with their local power companies to ensure their needs can be met. Lines for utility service in many locations can be more than a year in many cases, even for more traditional, industrial electric service.

Large fleets could eventually demand so much power that utilities may have to upgrade their distribution systems to meet this demand. Transit agencies may want to explore options such as an on-site battery energy storage system, which could help give them the flexibility to charge more vehicles during off-peak hours, saving time and putting less strain on the power grid.

Smoothing the path of electrification

While the reality of switching to electric vehicles may seem daunting, it will almost certainly bring significant rewards in terms of carbon reduction, lower fuel and maintenance costs, and more efficient operation. However, the process will also be very complex and time-consuming and will require transit agencies to approach the transition strategically, with a clear understanding of the variables at play and potential pitfalls. A smart, thoughtful approach to planning and deploying charging infrastructure tailored to their unique needs, together with digital platforms to reduce process complexity and early engagement with utility and technology partners will be a vital step in this direction.

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

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