Looking Towards A Zen-like ZEB Transition – “Take A (Cleansing) Breath”

It’s a discussion that almost every transit agency is having in North America – what do we need to do, when are we going to do it, and can we implement a Zero Emission Bus (ZEB) Fleet alone?

This (or some form of it) is a strategic and tactical decision that agencies must address soon. The social, political, and economic pressures to transition from carbon-based fuels such as diesel or gasoline to some form of zero-emission fleet are enormous; politicians are pressing on a national scale, the public is pressing on a community level, and everyone in between has an opinion one way or the other. In addition to the direct pressures, there is more implicit pressure from government funding stressing the transition to zero-emission, which will likely push the vehicle manufacturers towards the same conclusion – slow or stop production of transit vehicles that burn carbon-based fuels.

As an agency CEO or manager of a transit fleet, there are four simple questions to ponder:

  • Why do I need to do anything?
  • When do I need to do something?
  • What should I be doing now?
  • How do I get started?

Why Do I Need To Do Anything?

Seas rising, increased frequency of storms, impassioned pleading from the youth across the world — whatever your view on climate change, there can be no denying that the necessary eventuality is a reduction in the burning of carbon-based fuels. Changing a bus from diesel to electric will not save the world — but there is a cumulative effect that we need to push, and it always starts small. People (and transit agencies) everywhere know what the future looks like for fleets, and while it needs to happen, help is required to make it happen.

If the political argument provides global context, the pressure from communities to have more environmentally sound solutions for transit through their neighborhoods provides a highly personal perspective. Every day, transit publications show agencies of all sizes running pilot programs of ZEB solutions. The increasing visibility of these buses throughout the country introduces a rise in highly localized pressure from taxpayers and riders seeking change. As transit agency leaders, the voice of the public and the ridership grows louder every day.

Take a cleansing breath, and let’s answer the next simple question.

When Do I Need To Do Something?

Recent infrastructure announcements from the Biden administration recognize the importance and scale of this issue. A $550 billion infrastructure bill provides transit with a dedicated $7.5 billion for electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure and another $3.7 billion dedicated to ZEB transitions. Unfortunately, this demonstrates a nascent degree of understanding of the scale of the challenge. Coupled with global environmental commitments at sessions like the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26)—which involved all major international leaders—a strong narrative is forming. Agencies should not expect much in the way of federal support for the continued purchase of fleets using internal combustion engines.

Many different timelines are being touted throughout North America, but the general understanding is that this transition needs to happen as soon as practical. This understanding has congealed into a broad goal for many agencies of complete fleet conversion ahead of the federally mandated year 2040. In some cases, the goal is 2030.

2030—to clarify, that’s less than one bus lifecycle from today – that is the urgency facing us all.

This could mean that the diesel buses which are purchased today may very well be the last of that fuel type an agency will purchase. It will become increasingly difficult to find a diesel bus at all by 2030 as manufacturers transition their operations to meet the rising demand for alternatively fueled vehicles. Every agency needs to look at this timeframe and understand what this means to the fleet, the infrastructure, the operating costs, the employee skill sets, and the service that is needed by the public.

What Should I Be Doing Now?

It’s quite an eye-opener to witness the astonishing rise of electric and zero-emission vehicles. Helped by significant changes in battery technology and cooperation from manufacturers at all stages, the EV market is growing at an exponential rate. Larger vehicles, specifically buses, have increased at a slower rate because the manufacturing, deployment, and charging approach are significantly different from the purchase or pilot of a handful of buses.

Before an agency decides to commit some of the current year’s capital funds (and possibly set the entire future direction for the whole agency) and buys one of the first battery-electric bus (BEB) or hydrogen fuel cell electric buses (FCEB); it is supremely important for transit agency leaders to understand the complexity and enormity of this transition and to “take inventory” of your current human, infrastructure, and fleet capital. A robust review of the existing operation is a critical first step before any vehicle is procured or building redesign is executed. As a minimum, a closer look at the following attributes is recommended:

  • Physical (are your routes generally flat or hilly, long or short, congested or fast?)
  • Environmental (do you need significant heating/cooling for passengers?)
  • Utility Supply (can you get enough fuel/power to your facilities, and is your local power generated from a “green” source?)
  • Infrastructure (are your buildings able to be updated, or are new facilities necessary?)

These questions are a start to the longer journey. Breathe. Take a deep, cleansing breath. There is help available to answer these questions and to form and answer the additional questions that follow.

Make no mistake; NO one solution fits every agency in an identical manner. A design review of this type could reveal the need for a BEB solution or an FCEB solution, or some balance of both.

Thankfully, once a clearer view of the current state is developed, and potential scenarios for the future are discussed using data modeling of your specific operation, the funding discussion can commence. Take a breath; the numbers are staggering. Each 40’ BEB or FCEB will likely cost up to $1 million (USD) – a significant jump up from the capital required to purchase a diesel-powered bus which can cost up to $500,000. Of course, the impact on infrastructure can also be demanding. Ensuring structural and electrical demands can be met can make the process daunting. However, federal grant funding and projected reductions in lifecycle maintenance costs will combine with designed charging strategies to make the business case more appealing. Understanding, validating and projecting the transition’s overall capital and operating costs, coupled with educating your leadership regarding funding sources, should be considered a matter of urgency.

So, let’s assume you know what to do and you have the money to do it.

How Do I Get Started?

We have arrived at the most important “bus stop” question on this journey.

The scope and size of challenges are equal to the opportunities available to address them. If it were simply fleet procurement, the issue would be almost mundane. When you introduce significant infrastructure changes, environmental challenges (typically from older bus barns), operational reviews (will your ZEB fulfill all routes or will it need to be limited to specific routes?), staffing development (are all your heavy-duty bus mechanics willing/able to work on electric vehicles – what’s the training plan?) or utility relationships (is the utility provider a good partner?), etc. the process can seem formidable and fraught with pitfalls.

Combining the scale of the task with the time pressure and the political commitments, the process can seem daunting.

The first step in addressing an issue is admitting there is an issue…

Ask for help. Transit agencies already have a full-time role in delivering service; there are many great options to help with research at any phase of the transition. Most agencies are looking for help in developing a transition plan.

  • Look for help that can break down the big problem into more manageable and relatable tasks
  • Look for help that is able to demonstrate how each task will meet the needs of your stakeholders
  • Look for help that understands the impact on communities and the social equity that can benefit in the broader context
  • Look for help that can structure a meaningful business case to support your hunt for financial support
  • Look for help with a broad base technical experience or teaming arrangements that cover the whole process

So as big as the problem may seem, the approach can be clearly defined and customized for your needs, and support is here; just reach out.

As an agency – you are not alone. In addition to a robust pool of resources available from the consulting world, there are other organizations throughout North America that are always willing to help. In some areas of the country, transit agencies have banded to form very specific ZEB coalitions to share experiences and information.

Support, experience, skills, and resources are essential. Guidance through your ZEB journey is available and should be leveraged for a successful Zen-like experience.

About The Author

Russell Davies is a 30-year transportation professional in both the private and public sectors, serving 17 years with Calgary Transit in roles of increasing responsibility, including as Agency Director. Russell currently serves as the Zero Emission Bus Lead.

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