The prospect is intriguing. What if your daily mass transit commute were on an electric bus? Many cities around the nation are working to reconfigure their aging bus fleets, whether they run on diesel, propane or natural gas. The electric bus is gaining in popularity and it may not be long until more of them stop to welcome you aboard.

Over the last several years, the city of Lancaster has been vigorously pursuing the sustainability goal of achieving zero net energy status as one of the nation’s leading cities in the alternative energy arena. The Antelope Valley Transit Authority (AVTA) announced recently that an additional $6.84 million in funding has boosted local enthusiasm for the all-electric bus service because they’ve reached the halfway point toward becoming the nation’s first all-electric, zero-emission transit fleet.

Considerable savings in fuel

Transit companies pay more money to buy electric buses, yet the related fuel and energy savings over the life of an electric bus versus its diesel hybrid counterpart is said to result in a net zero cost—or at least break even—within a projected seven years. For starters, the initial cost of an AVTA electric bus is about $200,000 higher than the cost of the same diesel hybrid bus. While the current annual fuel costs for AVTA’s diesel fleet is $2.7 million, the projected ongoing cost of energy to power the same electric fleet will be a projected $330,750, a figure that AVTA officials say will result in annual savings of more than $2.3 million in fuel alone.

Lancaster two years ago embarked on “net zero” status as a city, and the news from AVTA may well convince doubters of the ambitious plan that “going green” is a more practical way of operating a municipality than was once believed.

“Once again, the city of Lancaster and one of its ‘green’ partner agencies are making strides where many have doubted our drive and agenda toward reaching zero net energy as a community,” said Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris. “The benefits for supporting and pursuing sustainability avenues for our city are evident, not only from a longevity standpoint, but from a cost-saving outlook as well.” Parris said the near half-million residents of the Antelope Valley will benefit from these and other environmentally-friendly decisions whether it be solar power or non-polluting mass transit.

“The utilization of an all-electric, zero-emission [bus] fleet will have a tremendous impact on our local environment and, hopefully, a great influence on the ambitions of other cities to strive for more energy-concious endeavors in their communities.”

Help from CalSTA

The $6.4 million came from the California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA) and represents the third iteration of financial support towards the AVTA all-electric plan. Having partnered with the Antelope Valley Air Quality Management District—along with SunLine Transit in Thousand Palms, and Kern Regional Transit in Bakersfield—AVTA was party to the winning project totaling $13.7 million, for which the aforementioned grant funds were awarded. The money specifically directed to the AVTA will fund the addition of another 10 (or possibly more) zero-emission local transit buses, bringing the agency’s total electric fleet to 41; this represents the half-way point of its ultimate goal of 82 electric coaches.

The 10 new buses are expected to service heavily trafficked routes in hopes of reducing wait times by half for commuters traveling to schools, veterans to senior centers, as well as the Metrolink. As well, AVTA is expected to procure more buses from Lancaster-based BYD (Build Your Dreams), recognized by many transportation experts as the world’s premier international producer of electric buses and energy storage batteries.

Confidence in transportation future

In 2013, AVTA’s efforts to build an all-electric fleet began with an initial $1.9 million investment. Last year, CalSTA provided another $2.4 million toward the purchase of 29 electric buses, which are expected to be received and put to use along AVTA Route 1 by December. Marvin Crist, board chairman of the AVTA, said the ongoing funding from CalSTA has played a important part in rolling out the environmentally-friendly bus line.

“It is rewarding that key decision makers from the state of California are demonstrating confidence in the future transportation of the Antelope Valley,” said Crist who also serves as vice mayor of Lancaster.

AVTA not only wants to expand its electric bus fleet, but is also allocating some of the recent funding for the development of a zero-emission vanpool program within the agency’s service area. The program is expected to provide 10 vanpool vehicles for use by residents who commute to jobs throughout the Antelope Valley as well as throughout the greater Los Angeles basin. Len Engel, executive director of AVTA, said the possibilities for a more productive vanpool program are numerous.

“We envision utilizing the vanpool vehicles in ways beyond the traditional work-commute model,” he said. “A public car-share program during non-commuting hours and an alternative to employer fleet vehicles are just some of the ideas that we are excited to demonstrate.”

Positive results in Thousand Palms

The switch to electric buses will not be immediate. For instance, in nearby Thousand Palms, the SunLine Transit Agency has tested several generations of hydrogen fuel cell bus technology. The transit agency received a $9.8 million grant a few years ago from the Federal Transportation Administration to see if it could successfully deploy these hybrid vehicles on a regular basis. So far, the results have been positive, according to Lauren Skiver, the agency’s CEO and general manager.

“Fuel cells generate the energy to create electricity,” Skiver said last year. She explained that it is important to promote hydrogen as a commercially viable fuel for public transit buses. “We have solar panels everywhere on our property. We’re located out in the desert and we’re not going to let any sun get away.”

So, too, does Lancaster bask in the desert sun. But instead of fuel cells, the AVTA wants to eliminate even this “eco-friendly” method of power and move directly to full electric power. While hybrid vehicles are popular globally, the market is reportedly changing in North America where the focus is definitely on all-electric and fuel-cell buses. BYD is banking on its fully battery-electric long-range bus that can transport up to 47 passengers at highway speed for more than 190 miles. It’s not terribly different than the buses used by the Chicago Transit Authority (manufactured by Seimens) which measure 40 feet in length. In 2014, BYD demonstrated this type of bus (a 60-foot model) on a 1,500-mile-plus cruise to a transportation exposition in Houston, stopping at 10 charging stations along the way.

BYD last year entered into a contract with Long Beach Transit to manufacture 10 battery-powered electric buses and charging systems. These buses presumably could go into operation as early as October.

BYD world leader

Another U.S. electric bus manufacturer, North Carolina-based Proterra, recently introduced a new extended-range product line. The TerraVolt XR are coaches that can travel up to 180 miles between charges. The company uses what is called “fast charge” or “opportunity charging” rather than refueling by plugging the vehicle into a standard charger, the method utilized by BYD. It reportedly takes from three to five minutes; however this process involves driving the bus into a specially-made overhead charging station (where the charger connects with a point on the roof of the bus). Last year, the California Energy Commission awarded Proterra a $3 million grant to build a manufacturing plant in the City of Industry. Foothill Transit operates 15 of Proterra’s zero-emission buses and has ordered another 15 coaches.

“When we look at the forward pipeline of potential orders, almost every large and medium-sized city in California is moving forward in some way,” said Ryan Popple, Proterra’s chief executive officer. “[Foothill Transit] was very excited to see Proterra invest locally, so they were the first to place an order to support the new factory. We envision our company eventually becoming an ‘iconic public company’ known for reinventing transit technology to benefit cities in the United States and, later, the world.”

Foothill Transit serves 22 cities in the eastern portion of the county and, as of 2015, virtually all of its 350 busses were powered by natural gas (a lower-emission alternative to diesel). The company used stimulus funds years ago to buy three electric buses and construct one of the specialized Proterra “docking stations.” Later, Foothill Transit used Transportation Department funds to purchase another 12 Proterra buses and placed them into service on its 17-mile Line 291 in Pomona, reportedly one of the agency’s most trafficked routes. The buses stop in the middle of the route for about five to 10 minutes to recharge.

Foothill Transit goes green

“The cost of energy per mile is about half what it would be for diesel,” said Doran Barnes, executive director of Foothill Transit.

An electric bus has many advantages over those utilizing an internal combustion engine (ICE). Electric buses do not spew gaseous emissions and do not need other problem pollutants such as oil, transmission fluid and radiator fluid. In some of them, the only hydrocarbon-based substance is the grease which lubricates the bearings. Electric buses are simplistic because the propulsion system in a traditional motor has hundreds of moving parts as opposed to just one electric motor. In addition to reducing maintenance costs and saving on lubricants and oils, the reduction in friction losses in an electric bus contributes to its energy efficiency.

Speaking of efficiency, engineers and other experts in transportation attest to the fact that for every 100 units of fuel that are expended in a regular ICE, only 16 of these units actually result in propulsion. An electric bus, however, is said to use almost 85 units out of 100 for driving the vehicle. And there is another significant advantage that an electric motor has over an ICE: regenerative braking. When an electric vehicle is slowing down, the motor becomes a generator and provides energy to the batteries. This process helps to reduce brake wear. Finally, an electric vehicle is very quiet—so quiet that engineers concentrate more on noise from the air conditioning unit or power steering, rather than the motor.

At a national park near you

Around the world, electric buses are rapidly replacing the old ones. From Shanghai in China to Geneva, Switzerland, the electric bus has taken hold quickly as transit agencies switch from the old methods of transportation to new, environmentally-friendly methods of travel.

In the United States, it may not be long until the fleet of buses that serve our national parks become electric buses. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory is evaluating the possibility of converting a fleet of 14 propane-powered buses at Utah’s Zion National Park to electric power. Apparently, high maintenance costs—and harmful pollutants—attributed to the aging bus fleet have led the National Park Service to consider the switch.