Chariot e-bus Chariot e-bus Israeli Chariot electric buses use innovative ultra-capacitors in place of batteries. (Photo: Courtesy of Chariot)

Plug-in public transit: Electric buses go global

Tel Aviv is one of the first international cities to order a fleet of electric buses, and others are following its lead.

Electric buses are quietly making inroads into the dominance of dirty diesels around the world. Although they cost approximately 40 percent more than diesels, electric buses offer dramatic operating cost reductions, in addition to the environmental benefit. With seven to eight times the fuel efficiency, they can save more than $100,000 over a 12-year lifespan. After gaining ground in American cities, foreign countries are bringing the electric bus to a new level.

In downtown Reno, which is soon to be the site of Tesla’s battery “gigafactory,” the city now offers a 25 cent  electric bus shuttle that is a marvel to behold as it docks with overhead charging wires at the LEED-certified central station.

“Diesel is a dead man walking,” said Ryan Popple, CEO of South Carolina-based Proterra, which makes Reno’s buses. The buses aren’t cheap – Proterra’s “Next Generation” 40-footer sells for $800,000 each – but big state and federal subsidies ease the pain somewhat.

Proterra just sold two of its zero-emission buses to King County Metro Transit in Seattle, and is hoping to sell the transit agency another 200 over five years, which could trigger a major expansion.

"The EV transit opportunity is truly global, with the overall bus market at about 500,000 units per year, including school buses," Popple said. "While not on the scale of passenger cars, this is a massive market, one that consumes staggering amounts of fuel per vehicle, and uniquely impacts the most sensitive emissions environments-the urban core."

Chattanooga, Tennessee has long run a free electric bus on a loop around the downtown area. There are 16 buses in service, and it’s poised for expansion. Other American cities with electric buses in service include Tallahassee, Florida; Worcester, Massachusetts; San Antonio, Texas; and both Stockton and Pomona in California. Chicago is also embarking on an electric bus pilot program.

Proterra electic busProterra’s “Next Generation” bus is finding urban buy-in. (Photo: Courtesy of Proterra)

One of the first foreign cities to push forward with a test run of an electric bus was Tel Aviv. Israel’s Dan Bus Company started running a Chinese-made BYD (“Build Your Dreams”) electric bus with 155-mile range on Tel Aviv’s Line 5 last year. That single bus in Tel Aviv is likely to grow to a fleet of 20, thanks to Israel’s Chariot Motors, which is building new carriages that can quick-charge in under five minutes for a city trip of up to 15 miles. Instead of batteries, the bus offers one of the first practical demonstrations of ultra-capacitors, which can take on and discharge electric power very quickly.

Other cities are following Tel Aviv's lead. In Mannheim, Germany, two electric buses are charging wirelessly. The Bombardier PRIMOVE system charges the batteries when they’re stopped picking up passengers – and parked over a wireless charger. In Vienna, Austria, a fleet of 12 Siemens electric buses are working downtown routes, recharging (like the Proterras) from overhead power lines.

Iceland is getting its first electric buses this year from Chinese supplier Yutong. An Icelandic entrepreneur named Gisli Gislason purchased a bumper crop of Better Place’s leftover 240-volt chargers and will install them 200 of them around the country – probably enough for a national network.

Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries has supplied a pair of electric buses for a regular route around the city of Kitakyushu in Fukuoka Prefecture, and their lithium-ion batteries recharge from solar and store the energy in a battery back-up system.

And even Brazil is getting into electric buses. In that country, transportation normally runs on sugarcane-derived ethanol fuel which is cleaner than diesel, but still aggravating to the climate. BYD is building a factory for its plug-in technology there, and has invested $400 million in Brazil.

Don’t expect to see electric buses on long-distance routes anytime soon, because the batteries limit range. But cities are discovering they work excellently well around town.

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