Report: City Needs to Do Lots of Legwork to be Hospitable to Electric Buses

It's going to take a lot of work to make a home for electric buses. Photo: MTA
It's going to take a lot of work to make a home for electric buses. Photo: MTA
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It’s not just plug-and-play.

A coalition of transit and environmental advocates says the city and the MTA must do far more groundwork if the transit agency is to meet its goal of a zero emissions bus fleet by 2040 — a goal that planners are way behind on figuring out, according to a new report from ElectrifyNY.

The main challenges include setting up the electric grid to make charging buses cheap and efficient, figuring out the correct charging strategy to get the most of out every battery and keeping electrified bus depots in flood zones from getting ruined during flooding and storms.

“Collaborations with the utilities, the city of New York, and local communities must begin now to create an electric bus network that serves the needs of all of our residents,” said Lauren Bailey, the director of climate policy at the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, and the report’s main author.

The good news according to Bailey, is that with a target date of 2040 — which remains the MTA’s plan, even as the coronavirus blew a hole in the agency’s budget — there’s time to be proactive about electrifying the fleet.

Here's the report.
Here’s the report.

“We’re still in 2020 even though this has been the most difficult year of our lives,” said Bailey. “Our target date [for when the MTA committed to buying only electric buses] is 2030, which means we have nine years until we can’t buy any more internal combustion engine buses, so there is time. This idea that we’ve missed the bus on this and squandered our time, we’re not there yet. We have the opportunity to shape this still.”

The biggest challenge to an electrified fleet is a better electric grid if New York is to break free from gas-powered buses on a huge scale. Utility companies are already trying to build more infrastructure to deliver energy from Long Island and upstate to the city, but the report argues that such efforts must dovetail with the current push to create renewable energy options around the state. Bailey pointed out that beyond superstorms and other newsworthy weather events, the city is already buffered by more regular extremes for hot and cold, and knowing that means having to plan regular assaults on the power grid into the MTA’s future electricity demands.

As an example of the necessity of buses during these kinds of emergencies, the report laid out the role buses played in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, when flooded subway tunnels made the city’s train system briefly unworkable. Any viable future for electric buses, the authors argue, is only possible if utility companies and the MTA reach an understanding on charging an appropriate amount of money to charge buses that won’t bankrupt the transit agency if it tries to do something like the “bus bridges” that ran across the East River bridges in days after the superstorm in 2012.

Therefore, keeping the grid issues in mind means getting utilities on board with charging the MTA flat rates during emergencies that impact the power grid, in order to ensure that the MTA doesn’t have to pay exorbitant rates just to charge its buses to move people.

“Having resiliency in emergencies is what we want to have negotiated out so we’re not looking at this a year in and saying ‘The buses are working great, the transition is going great, but we spent all this money on electricity because we didn’t negotiate the rates,'” said Bailey.

New York State is currently working with utility companies on some of the various issues regarding the turnover to more renewable energy, but Bailey said that there’s a challenge in getting the usually reactive utility companies and MTA to be more proactive. She also said the MTA, which is used to being the authority when dealing with utility companies and other players, is going to have to play nice with energy providers in order to get itself the rates it needs.

Other issues, like how to create the best charging strategies for buses or hardening bus depots in flood zones, are problems that are more in the MTA’s hands.

Think of an electric bus like a giant cell phone; that battery will drain over time if it’s not being charged, especially in cold weather. As MTA Bus President Craig Cipriano recently admitted to Streetsblog, the MTA could one day face a future where it has 300 buses to charge at a time in depots. If those buses aren’t immediately leaving for runs after getting charged, the report says that the MTA will have to figure out an efficient way to keep the idle buses charged. One suggestion is installing overhead charging gantries that operate at low-power and keep buses humming and warm without running the battery down.

Future extreme weather events are also a huge threat to existing 29 bus depots — 14 of which (housing 2,179 buses, or roughly 40 percent of the fleet) are located in areas that are in high or very high flood risk areas. Advocates suggest that one way to deal with this is to begin electrifying depots in low and moderate-risk zones. Additionally, while the authors argue that “limited capital funds may be better spent constructing new depots in less flood-prone areas,” if moving bus depots themselves is not a realistic option, the MTA should rely on ceiling-based pantograph chargers instead of wall-mounted chargers for bus depots at risk of flooding.

The report also suggests that capital upgrades to bus depots include at least one additional electricity feed to the building in order to ensure storms don’t knock out a single lifeline and leave the buses housed in a depot as useful as a bricked cell phone.

One piece of good news for electric buses though is that cold weather may not be the operational barrier that people think it is. Even in wintery Edmonton, the local transit agency found that “electric bus propulsion was not affected by cold weather as much as single occupancy electric vehicles.” And New York is not nearly as cold as Wayne Gretzky’s former stomping grounds, leading the report’s authors to conclude that winter weather is not a dealbreaker for an all-electric fleet. (But then again, other cities, like Albuquerque, had trouble with the limited range of electric buses, something Cipriano mentioned to Streetsblog, too.)

Whatever issues exist should be seen as engineering problems, according to Bailey, instead of political arguments, in order to actually get the kinks worked out.

“This is something we need to get our best engineers, our best project managers, our best construction workers and electricians on. This doesn’t have to be a political conversation; it’s just a question of, what are the actual things we need to do to make this happen, and then let’s go and do them,” she said.

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