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The MTA’s New Electric Bus Order Is Another Step Forward, But A Power Struggle Looms

An MTA electric bus. Photo: Dave Colon

The baby steps are getting bigger.

The MTA's announcement last week that it would up its order of electric buses from 45 to 60 this year and install 50 overhead electric chargers in bus depots is a reason for optimism, electric bus experts say, though there are still issues around the authority's ability to wield its power ... so it can draw power when it needs it.

"It's good to see that there's actually a procurement out for the buses and for the chargers," said Lauren Bailey, the director of Climate Policy for Tri-State Transportation Campaign. "The chargers are the signal that the MTA is sending that it's ready to start expanding this; that we're out of pilot territory, if we're talking about 50 bus chargers. No one's ordering [electric] buses, unless there's a specific plan on how they're going to charge them."

Bailey, who wrote a report on the challenges the MTA is facing to meet its goals of only buying electric buses after 2028 and having a zero-emissions bus fleet by 2040, said that the bus and charger procurement announcement shows the MTA moving past its baby steps phase.

"It's a very different conversation now," she said. "Whenever one of these announcements come out that they're procuring more buses, that signals to me that they have it together, that they've sorted out the transition here."

Those buses will need to draw power from somewhere, though, which is the ongoing issue that MTA leadership says it's working through with power companies and regulators. Craig Cipriano, the MTA's bus boss, said the authority was still working out how to best negotiate rates for its bus fleet, something Tri-State's report said would be key as more buses did the electric slide.

"As we move ahead and need more power, we're speaking to ConEd on what type of rates we can work out with them," Cipriano said on Tuesday.

A representative for the New York Power Authority, who was on hand at last Tuesday's bus announcement and charger demo, compared the upcoming electric power needs to the surge that came with the mass adoption of home air conditioning (which to be clear, your correspondent does not use).

"If you go back a few decades hardly anybody had air conditioning," said NYPA Director of e-Mobility Technology and Engineering John Markowitz. "It slowly phased in and the power companies built out the infrastructure to support it. The same thing is true with the electrification of fleets. It's going to be a 15-year window as it keeps ramping up, you keep building out the infrastructure to support it, and you do the same thing on the rate side to make sure all the rates are right, so that you can do grid-friendly charging. Buses are perfect example because you could charge them late at night, when that air conditioning load is down. [If] get all of that right, ... it's an attractive thing for the fleet so that's actually cheaper than fossil fuels."

Markowitz's analogy is more about grid capacity than the specter of sky high electricity bills during the summer that will end up hiking the MTA's electricity costs over the $175 to $185 million that the agency currently spends on fuel every year. Bailey said that the New York regulates its power grid to ensure that critical infrastructure like public transportation gets power and isn't gouged to death and that the city's rates for electricity manage to stay consistent at least, which lets the MTA avoid huge sudden spikes.

"The caveat here is that New York City has some of the highest electrical rates in the country," Bailey said. "That being said we're able to have consistent rates for electricity versus fuel, which is super volatile, even for a place like the MTA that is able to negotiate bulk buying or buying fuel on their own. So having that consistency, and also the ability to have on site resiliency, things like micro grids to keep the cost down in the summer means that long term, we're likely to be seeing a lower cost per bus. But we're not going to see that in year one or two, we're talking for that full twelve-year lifecycle of that bus."

For state power regulators, the electric bus announcement is the latest challenge in the process that converts the city and the region's entire power grid to renewable energy, Bailey said, a series of steps that regulators deliberately take slowly in order to avoid disrupting power distribution. Bailey said that the MTA is "playing nice" at the moment by restricting its charging schedule to late nights and early mornings when demand is lower, but that it's going to have throw its weight around at some point to accommodate a larger bus fleet that has to sometimes draw power during peak hours.

"The MTA is its own beast when it comes to talking to the utilities, and they have the ability to say, 'Here's what we're able to pay.' That's going to be a conversation directly with the utilities, because at some point, when you're charging almost 6,000 buses daily, if not twice a day, you're going to be a very large customer, and that's going to be very hard to to ignore for the utilities," said Bailey.

Cipriano told Streetsblog in 2020 that the MTA is currently still paying more per bus mile for electricity than it does for fossil fuels, so the question of cost of fuel and the timing of the recharging is going to be paramount to the future of the system. But since the MTA won't be the only player in the move to mass electrification, Bailey predicted constant negotiations over rates even past the zero-emissions date in 2040.

"It's going to come down to the fact that the MTA is always driven by two things: financial impact and operational impact. So I think they're going to try to find that intersection where they're able to operate as consistently as possible, with limited disruptions to charging and service rollout, while at the same time having it be as cheap as possible," said Bailey. "And I do think that a lot of these conversations around rates are going to be negotiations. We're going to see this as a conversation that goes long past 2040, because between the technology and its deployment being iterative, we're going to see a lot of ongoing discussions around some of these things about what the MTA can afford, and what the utilities are able to accommodate."

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