Electric buses are coming faster than we think

For the past two days I’ve been attending the annual Member Conference of the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS).

I do a bit of consulting work with UAMPS, helping them with communications projects. The conference featured numerous speakers covering a wide variety of topics, some of which I will report on later. Here are a couple of interesting things I learned:

The electrification of transportation, particularly buses and public transportation, is happening faster than most people realize. When we think of electric vehicles, we think mostly of Teslas and Chevy Bolts but, in reality, it is heavy-duty buses where the transformation is occurring most quickly.

Alan Westenskow, from Proterra, which makes electric buses, told the conference that electrification of many heavy-duty vehicles, especially buses, will happen faster than electrification of cars. That’s because buses are perfect for electrification. They operate on set routes, travel about the same miles every day, can be charged at night, have twice the horsepower and twice the acceleration of diesel buses, and the economics make sense. There is no “range anxiety,” as there is with electric cars.

Electric buses are being purchased by transit agencies all across the country, including in Utah. Electric buses get the equivalent of more than 20 miles per gallon of diesel fuel, compared to 4 miles per gallon for diesel buses. A diesel bus costs $500,000 and an electric bus costs $750,000. But electrics save hundreds of thousands of dollars in fuel costs. In six years, an electric bus breaks even, and then saves a lot of money over the rest of its 12-year life. Maintenance costs are half of diesel buses. With zero tailpipe emissions, the clean air benefits are substantial.  

Westenskow said other heavy-duty route vehicles, like garbage trucks and delivery trucks, will be electrified in coming years. Light rail (like Utah’s TRAX) is already electrified, and Utah Transit Authority would like to electrify FrontRunner.

David Wright, CEO of the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power, said Los Angeles is working hard to electrify transportation and even use vehicle batteries at night as electrical storage to provide electricity and supplement renewable energy when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.  The city is embarking on an aggressive program to provide charging stations nearly anywhere vehicles park. Wright said LA’s two biggest sources of pollution and carbon emissions are vehicles (39 percent) and power generation (19 percent). So nearly 60 percent of emissions could be eliminated with clean power and vehicle electrification.

The ramifications of electric transportation are gigantic for power agencies like UAMPS and its members. An average electric car uses about as much electricity as half a typical house, said Wright. Electricity demand is expected to skyrocket as the transportation system is electrified. Wright said LA’s electricity demand would double.

If power agencies can produce carbon-free and pollution-free electricity using renewables and nuclear power, we can have a dramatically cleaner future.

Another indication of likely higher electricity demand was noted by Steve Wright, general manager of Chelan County Public Utility District No. 1, in Washington State. He told the conference that his utility has been impacted dramatically by bitcoin miners who have flooded his utility district with massive numbers of computer servers because electricity is cheap and is derived mostly from clean hydropower projects. He warned attendees that as cryptocurrency gains momentum, and if prices stay high, mining businesses could locate anywhere in the country and would have an immediate large impact on electric utilities. The server farms use immense amounts of electricity.