Electric Buses - Plug In to the Future

by Thomas Cheney

Electric cars have drawn a lot of attention, but zero-emissions automobiles still have an environmental impact. For instance, mining and manufacturing materials for the batteries and chassis all have an environmental impact.

Combining electric transportation with mass transit makes for a superior and more affordable, readily available alternative. And unlike currently expensive electric cars, electric buses are competitive today with diesel buses. Thanks to recent developments in lithium-titanate batteries, it is possible for a bus to be charged in several minutes and provide the juice for 30 to 40 kilometres. The batteries are guaranteed to last for 10 years of regular use by the manufacturer AltairNano. Because of fast charging and regular routes, electric public transit routes do not suffer from the range anxiety that electric car users anticipate. While recharging can pose challenges for some electric vehicles, fast-charge electric buses combine frequent, scheduled short-bursts of charging to allows electric buses to work all day.

Electric bus technology is more than a century old, and electric trolleybuses still ply the streets of many cities throughout the world, including Vancouver and Seattle. However, new fast-charge buses avoid the requirement to build a standard electric trolleybus system typically costing a million dollars per kilometre or more. The batteries allow buses to travel 30 to 50 kilometres on a 10-minute charge. Unlike their trolleybus cousins, fast-charge electric buses provide sustainable transportation with much less infrastructure and thus can be used economically on less intensively served suburban and rural routes. In Wenatchee, Washington, fast-charge buses by E-bus continuously serve the small city’s downtown. An Opbrid, adapted plug-in, hybrid, fast-charge bus serves a 45-minute route in Umea, Sweden, practically eliminating diesel use.

Battery electric buses work by recharging at route ends, allowing them to keep current schedules. Because charging arms extend automatically, the driver remains seated. A particularly innovative electric bus is manufactured by Proterra and is used in several American cities. Proterra buses are made from lightweight carbon fibre, which gives them exceptional fuel econony. In spite of the millon-dollar price tag, the fuel savings from the 24-miles-per-gallon performance keeps lifetime cost similar to, or even lower than, a four-miles-a-gallon diesel bus. BC Transit explored the use of a Proterra fuel cell variant in Victoria in 2010.

Other companies getting on the electric bus bandwagon include Canadian industrial icon, Bombardier, with their Primove technology. Primove recharges buses using wireless inductive charging which requires only that the bus stop over a segment of adapted pavement to charge. The technology is currently being prototyped in Europe. Inductive charging has also been proposed as way to electrify highways, avoiding the need to stop and recharge.

Electric vehicles hold the promise of cleaner air, climate stability and reduced geopolitical entanglements. In addition, they avoid oil-extraction impacts. While electric cars struggle to gain market adoption on a large scale, battery electric bus technologies stand ready to revolutionize public transit. Electric buses pave the way for an electric, rather than petroleum-based, transportation system.


Thomas Cheney is a Master’s student at the University of Northern British Columbia, researching climate-change mitigation.


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