By John Kent
Texas Climate News
Back in the day – way back – my brothers and I would visit our grandparents in Shreveport, La., where Grandmother would load us onto a rubber-tired “trolley” to visit our favorite downtown toy store.
The trolley itself looked pretty much like any city bus, with one key difference: A pair of long, spring-loaded arms resembling giant insect antennae sprouted from the top at about a 45-degree angle, rising up to contact an overhead power line. With a prod of the driver’s right foot, electricity from the line jolted the vehicle’s electric motor to life, and off the trolley went. As it rolled through town, sparks would crackle and snap agreeably at the junction of the wire and the arms. No smoke, no smell and not much noise. It was a great way to get around.
Grandmother was not happy when, in 1961, a fleet of new diesel buses she described as “stinky” elbowed out the clean-running trolleys. Back then, that was progress. But what goes around comes around – electrified public transportation is making a comeback, this time in the form of electric buses that draw energy from onboard batteries instead of external sources.
While Texas cities have begun taking their first, tentative steps toward the e-bus transition, the country’s two largest public-transit systems, New York City’s MTA and Los Angeles’ LA Metro, have committed to 100 percent zero-emissions bus fleets by 2040 and 2030, respectively. For now, though, only about 300 e-buses are ferrying folks around U.S. municipalities, a figure expected to swell to 5,000 by 2025. If you want to see where all of this is going, take a look at China, a country grappling with extreme air pollution that reportedly has killed up to a million people in a single year. There, more than 400,000 e-buses already have been rushed into operation, according to a Bloomberg NEF study.
If Texas is not jumping in with both feet, it is at least dipping a toe into the e-bus waters, with an eye toward wading in further. Funding from federal grants, and Texas’ $209 million share of the Volkswagen emissions-cheating settlement, are helping to jump-start the purchase of battery-electric buses in most of the state’s bigger cities. San Antonio, Dallas, Austin, Fort Worth, Lubbock and Port Arthur all have purchased small numbers of e-buses, with transit officials expressing strong interest in expanding those fleets.
Among electric buses’ biggest advantages is their ability to do the same work as conventional people-movers but with zero tailpipe emissions – a potential environmental windfall for urban areas struggling to improve air quality and in the fight against climate change. Proponents also point to their low noise levels, which helps mute the din of the city and treats passengers to a tranquil ride. Dottie Watkins, vice president of bus operations at Austin’s Capital Metro, told Austin NBC affiliate KXAN-TV, “The loudest thing you will hear on the electric bus is the air conditioning – literally the air coming through the bus is the loudest part of the bus. They are an extremely quiet vehicle, which makes it a great riding experience for our customers.”
The Bloomberg NEF study predicts that by 2030 e-buses will have achieved purchase-price parity with conventional buses. For now, their sticker price can be more than 50 percent above that of a diesel or CNG (compressed natural gas) bus. Still, Texas transit officials appear to be in general agreement that the steeper up-front costs of e-buses are offset over time because they are so much cheaper to run and maintain.
In April, the Capital Metro board approved a contract for up to 10 electric buses, with service scheduled to start later this year in Austin. The transit system hopes to have 40 e-buses in service by 2024. “Capital Metro is committed to the use of innovative technology to create a more efficient, quiet and sustainable transit system,” President and CEO Randy Clarke said in a news release.
In Dallas, the DART transit agency initiated electric-bus service last year with seven new short-range Proterra Catalyst buses that run routes in the middle of town and use a fast-charging system to keep them in motion.
“With just over a year in service, we continue to be very pleased with the electric bus program here at DART,” said Todd Plesko, DART vice president of service planning and scheduling. “As an early adopter of the technology, we have found the electric buses to be reliable and our riders marvel at how quiet they are.”
DART has applied to the Federal Transit Administration’s FY2019 Low- or No-Emission Program to purchase up to six additional e-buses. This time his agency is looking at vehicles with longer range than the current buses’ 30 miles.
Next door in Fort Worth, Trinity Metro opted for longer-range (150 miles per charge) New Flyer Xcelsior Charge buses to ferry passengers along the city’s entertainment and cultural districts. Service is scheduled to begin on Sept. 22, testing is under way and leadership likes what it sees.
“We’re starting our first electric bus service in September, and we’re excited to introduce our passengers to this new technology that will provide a very quiet ride,” said Wayne Gensler, Trinity Metro vice president and chief operating officer for bus and paratransit. “Our service, known as The Dash, will serve popular entertainment areas and the Fort Worth Cultural District. We would consider adding more electric buses in the future if everything goes as well as we expect.”
San Antonio’s VIA transit system already has a small fleet of e-buses in service but is using the first round of its Volkswagen settlement money – more than $5 million – to replace older diesel buses with models fueled by compressed natural gas, instead of electric ones, according to an Aug. 9 Rivard Report story. Even though the newer vehicles are not emissions-free, VIA notes that they’re far cleaner than the buses they will replace, and the natural gas vehicles are not constrained by the range limitations of current electric buses.
Houston’s METRO, an early adopter of fuel-saving hybrid bus technology, is nevertheless running late to the e-bus party. While 400 of the fleet’s 1,250 buses are diesel-electric hybrid, the Texas Public Interest Research Group (TexPIRG), the Sierra Club and the Electrify METRO Coalition have initiated a campaign urging the transit system to stop buying diesel-powered vehicles and start the transition to battery-electric. In a July letter to METRO Board Chair Carrin Patman on behalf of Electrify METRO, TexPIRG Director Bay Scoggins wrote, “Replacing all of METRO’s diesel-powered transit buses with electric buses could reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by more than 43 million pounds each year.”
METRO did take part in a 90-day e-bus pilot program in late 2016 and early 2017 but has not yet followed up with a purchase. METRO spokesperson Monica Russo said a handful of issues, including problems with the test buses’ air-conditioning systems, were a concern to the transit agency’s leadership. E-buses have not been dropped from consideration, however. “Green modes of transportation are definitely something we’re looking at,” Russo said. “It’s on our radar.”
As environmental groups and city planners cheer Texas’ slow roll toward e-bus adoption, skeptics are pushing back. In its July 22 issue, the Dallas Morning News published an editorial calling into question the economics of DART’s initial electric-bus purchase. By the editorial board’s calculations, DART’s e-buses appear to be no more economical than their diesel buses and actually cost more to run than the system’s CNG buses.
(Asked to respond to the newspaper’s editorial, DART’s director of external relations, Gordon Shattles, did not directly address economic factors but told Texas Climate News: “Dallas Area Rapid Transit remains committed to developing and deploying environmentally conscious programs and initiatives that provide both enhanced mobility options for North Texas residents, as well as protection for the environment, both now and in the future.”)
So, as the Morning News’ arguments demonstrated, battery-electric buses do not have everyone convinced. Yet. But the technology is quietly advancing, like a rising tide, and looks poised to wash over the entire transportation sector, sooner than later. As if in a choreographed dance, the automotive, municipal-transit and even the aviation industry are stepping synchronously toward electrification.
Americans purchased more than 328,000 battery-electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles in 2018, a 74 percent increase over the prior year’s total. Even with its petroleum-intensive economy, Texas was part of that trend, with Lone Star State EV sales up 117 percent over the same period, according to the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.
Aircraft manufacturers from startups to the established industry giants are plowing resources into electric propulsion, recognizing the promise of great leaps in efficiency and big reductions in noise, fuel use and emissions. Modern electric-drive technology is in its early years, and if history is precedent, it will improve steadily as prices fall.
Like any large-scale change, technological upheaval tends to bring out the doubters. In the late 1800s, automotive pioneer Alexander Winton carried around a New York World clipping to wave in the faces of those who questioned the future of the automobile. The clip featured an interview with Thomas Edison, who was quoted as saying, “Talking of the horseless carriage suggests to my mind that the horse is doomed … It is only a question of a short time when the carriages and trucks of every large city will be run by motors. The expense of keeping and feeding horses in a great city like New York is very heavy, and all this will be done away with.”
Edison was not clairvoyant, but he was smart.
And my grandmother clearly was ahead of her time.
John Kent, a contributing editor of Texas Climate News, is a Fort Worth-based writer specializing in transportation and environmental topics. He is a contributor to the Dallas Morning News and GreenSource DFW, a former staff writer for the Albuquerque Journal, and has written for the Associated Press, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Fort Worth Business Press and Corpus Christi Caller-Times.