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Electric buses face uphill struggle in fight against climate change

Widespread uptake of electric buses in urban areas could play a key role in helping to combat climate change, but recent tests in US cities have revealed key operational hurdles that need to be overcome, according to a report.

Electric buses tested around a small number of US locations had trouble with battery life, inadequate range and sensitivity to extreme heat, according to the US-based report compiled by public interest group US PIRG Education Fund, the non-profit Environment America Research, and Policy Center and Frontier Group, a clean energy organisation.

Battery-powered electric buses eliminate diesel exhaust emissions and pollution and emit far fewer greenhouse gasses that contribute to global warming than their diesel and natural gas-powered equivalents.

Transportation is for many countries the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions and this is the case in the US, accounting for almost one-third of total national emissions, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

However, according to the report, the emerging electric bus technology is not without its pitfalls, following the vehicle tests in six US locations.

Among them, Chicago Transit Authority’s two electric buses were able to handle cold weather and the agency plans full-fleet electrification by 2040, it said.

Conversely, buses tested in the heat of Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 2018 were reported to have had shorter-than-expected battery life, inadequate range and a sensitivity to extreme heat.

“We obviously want to see more electric buses on the road, but we’re not going to say places that have tested them have had 100 per cent success rates with no challenges,” said Matthew Casale, a transportation specialist with the PIRG Education Fund.

“Places that are thinking about making a change now can be more informed about what they are facing.”

While some US communities are looking to replace diesel buses, many transit agencies remain cautious due to concerns that electric vehicles have limited range and are unproven on a mass scale.

A report released in May by the World Resources Institute, a global research organisation, found that cities face technological, financial and institutional barriers to electrifying bus fleets.

Cities do not know enough about the buses’ limitations and maintenance, while transit agencies may be reluctant to invest in buses that are more costly up front even though they may be cheaper to operate long-term than conventional buses, WRI said.

“Critics out there say the buses are not ready for prime time because of technology hurdles or cost hurdles or education hurdles,” Casale said.

“At the end of the day, electric buses really provide significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and exposure to harmful pollutants,” he said. “It’s certainly something worth pursuing.”

About half of America’s nearly 70,000 transit buses and 95 per cent of its school buses run on diesel, the report said. Among major cities, New York City has announced plans to convert public buses to an all-electric fleet by 2040.

The majority of the world’s electric buses are operating in China, according to the WRI, although many other countries have seen growing adoption of electric bus fleets. 

The UK's first electric bus service began in 2014, when eight electric buses commenced operation in Milton Keynes as part of a pilot project to assess the viability of electricity-powered vehicles in public transport.

Earlier this year, Newport became the first city in Wales to run fully electric zero-emission buses on a permanent basis. Following electric bus trials in Cardiff, it was announced in August 2019 that Newport will receive 14 additional single-decker electric buses by April 2020, making up 15 per cent of operator Newport Bus’s fleet. Cardiff will receive 36 buses and Caerphilly 16.

In Taiwan, a driverless electric bus capable of carrying up to 12 passengers began trials in July 2017. The boxy, electric bus travels around a leafy university campus and is fitted with an array of sensors to make up for the lack of a driver.

Meanwhile, other urban areas are committing to a broader electric mass-transit programme. The French city of Orleans announced in November 2018 that it will have an all-electric public transport network within six years, the first in the country, embracing buses, trams and e-bikes.

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