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Electrifying Public Transit: Considerations and Approaches

April 30, 2021

6 min

Many states and cities in the U.S. have set aggressive fleet electrification goals as part of sustainability and climate action plans. As a vector of this movement, the electrification of public transportation has been a focus of many of these policy initiatives.

California adopted the Innovative Clean Transit Rule in December 2018. The rule requires all public transit agencies to gradually transition their fleets to zero-emission buses. Cities like Los Angeles plans to have an 100% electric operation by 2030. The California goal inspired many other states to set aggressive zero emission vehicle goals as well.

In response to these policy targets, public transit agencies are actively seeking electrification opportunities. For example, New York’s five largest upstate and suburban transit agencies are working to electrify 25% of their bus fleets by 2025 with a plan for full electrification by 2035. 

Getting started with fleet electrification

Each transit agency is likely to approach electrification in their own way. The agency might initiate their process by conducting feasibility studies, planning pilot projects, or applying for funding to help cover vehicle and infrastructure costs. This then leads to deployment, operationalizing, and scaling up the electric vehicle operation. 

Pilot projects are common for agencies to test the operations of battery electric buses (BEB). Some transit fleets are using these as a contained way to test the waters before committing to electric vehicles. Others have committed to an electrification roadmap with plans to scale their entire EV fleet. 

For many public transit agencies, the battery electric bus (BEB) is a new and unfamiliar technology. Successfully introducing new technology and its processes involves a transition period to fill knowledge and resource gaps. While there is no one size fits all approach, there are challenges that’s shared across most transit fleets during this transition. Common concerns include BEB reliability, charging infrastructure planning, and navigating utility engagement.

Facing the question of reliability

Reliability of BEBs is a key focus area for fleets. Many transit agencies have expressed concerns about whether electric buses can meet their required duty cycle. This can be especially pronounced in regions that experience extreme weather, since on board HVAC systems could drain a large amount of energy from the vehicle’s battery. 

In some cases, agencies replacing a retiring ICE bus with a BEB want the same schedule and route coverage. Pre-planning is especially valuable in these cases to identify the vehicles and routes that are most suitable.  

For transit fleets, having a clear picture of real-time vehicle statuses is a priority. Just as current transit operations rely on vehicle and performance data, effective BEB operations also require monitoring detailed bus and fleet information. 

Once electrified, this data set would include new inputs like battery level and charging status. These may come from sources like charging infrastructure or fleet monitoring software. Some charging management systems are integrated with telematics devices and are capable of not only monitoring charging but also providing reports and analysis on live vehicle operations. This can provide valuable insights for agencies to respond to and prevent service issues.

Planning for charging infrastructure

Deploying an electric fleet is a major systematic change usually involving significant capital investments and facility upgrades. In this process, most transit staff are familiar with vehicle operations but not as familiar with the charging infrastructure piece. Although the initial focus tends to be on vehicles, most agencies also plan ahead on their charging operations. 

Factors to consider include how many and what type of chargers to install, whether a transformer upgrade is needed, whether to include on-route charging options, and much more. Charging infrastructure planning is often an exercise that transit fleets are not well equipped to do on their own. As a result many agencies enlist third party consultants or contractors to provide recommendations, establish a plan, and facilitate the procurement and installation of chargers.

Infrastructure planning can also be optimized by incorporating charging management systems. For example, smart charging can ensure more vehicles are charged without needing a transformer upgrade. By sequencing vehicle charging so that charge times are staggered, this strategy can save agencies a significant amount of time and financial resources. 

Navigating new relationships with utilities 

Fleet electrification involves aligning multiple stakeholders and for many transit agencies, interacting with utilities has been an adjustment. The cost of running electric vehicle operations could be even higher than for ICE if fleets do not have a handle on energy costs. Therefore agencies are looking at their engagement with utilities with a new set of lenses.

Many agencies coordinate with their energy companies to discuss electricity rates, demand charges, electricity reliability, and sometimes infrastructure upgrades. Those with the most foresight are the ones working closely with their utility partners early on during the planning stage.  

Just as fleets need the intel on how to adjust to new fueling and energy operations, the same information sharing is also critical for utility companies: they need to know how the local load profile would change because of the increasing number of EVs, and design the electricity rates plans accordingly. Facilitating conversation among stakeholders is critical to optimize the planning of electrification and ensure the smooth transition as well as future operational reliability. 

Fleet electrification resources

Deploying and operating electric vehicle fleets is no easy feat, but transit agencies are not alone in this process. Including support from public policy, partners like utilities and consultants, and fleet electrification resources like Electriphi, there is a growing network of knowledge and resources available. 

Take advantage of planning tools that can help you create your electrification blueprint. Electriph’s free Fleet Electrification Planning Tool gives you individual EV transition analysis including estimated fueling costs, expected energy needs, environmental savings. 

Check out other articles on fleet electrification, including how engaging with your local utility can help you avoid critical missteps, or what goes into an electric fleet TCO analysis.

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