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Will 2023 Be the Year of the Electric Mass Transit Bus?

New orders for electric buses experienced unprecedented growth in 2022 driven, in part, by robust state and federal incentives, policy pressures and cost savings. With plenty of money in the pipeline, those purchases will continue.

Proterra Bus
Electric transit buses are finding their way onto U.S. streets at an alarming pace, with some states seeing triple-digit growth in the technology in just the last year.

A new report by CALSTART, a national nonprofit charged with advancing clean transportation technology, found that the number of zero-emission buses (ZEB) funded or on order in the U.S. has grown 66 percent since 2021, totaling some 5,480 full-size buses.

There were about 72,700 full-size buses in operation in the U.S. in 2019, the most recent data year available, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).

Much of the growth in e-buses has been driven by federal incentives. The movement had a sharp surge following the federal infrastructure package, as well as by state efforts — particularly those in California to phase out fossil fuel-burning buses — to give agencies the incentives to go forward with electrification.

The incentives served as the proverbial carrot for transit agencies to say, “we’re going to try something new,” said Jarrett Stoltzfus, senior director of government relations and public policy at Proterra. The company is one of the largest makers of electric transit vehicles in the United States. “The federal incentive has been a significant benefit, and will continue to be,” he added.

The battery-electric bus technology is clearly leading the way among transit agencies, far outpacing hydrogen fuel-cell technology. By 2022, there were about 5,269 battery-electric buses in operation — or soon to be in operation — compared to only 211 hydrogen fuel-cell varieties. Cost is perhaps the largest decider for transit agencies when choosing a technology.

“The cost of a hydrogen fuel-cell bus is quite a bit higher on average,” said Stoltzfus.

Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles benefit from being able to travel longer distances than battery-electric vehicles, making them good candidates for the medium- and heavy-duty vehicle sector, as well as maritime and aviation. However, battery range technology continues to improve, making the battery bus a workable solution for most transit uses.

“There’s a use case where hydrogen makes sense, but we found with the vast majority of transit customers … battery-electric is the only player,” said Stoltzfus.

Other factors that come into play include refueling infrastructure, facilities, access to hydrogen, as well as energy cost, said Mike Hynes, electric bus program manager at CALSTART.

“Battery-electric will require, at a minimum, the ability to charge at the location where the vehicles are garaged and may also require on-route charging. Fuel cell also requires the ability to fuel onsite, which may or may not require the construction of supporting facilities and/or the sourcing of the hydrogen fuel,” Hynes explained.

“A transit agency must weigh many factors and ultimately make the choice that is right for them ... It is reasonable to think that some agencies may deploy both technologies,” Hynes added.

California remains the centerpiece of the electric bus market, with nearly 2,000 of the vehicles in use by transit agencies. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority has more than 560 battery-electric buses in operation.

And the Antelope Valley Transit Authority (AVTA) in southern California has a fully electric fleet, which cost about 35 cents a mile to operate, once low carbon fuel standard credits are applied, said Judy Vaccaro-Fry, chief financial officer for AVTA, who noted the buses were bought with state and federal incentives.

“We went to everybody for money. It really became a puzzle of funding,” said Vaccaro-Fry, during a December 2022 webinar hosted by Optibus, a transportation management software platform. “Every bus had three or four funding types, just to cover the complete costs.”

Electric buses offer a large opportunity for operations savings, said Stoltzfus.

“When you have a vehicle with less parts, when you have a vehicle that effectively gets a significantly better fuel economy … that’s really significant in terms of fuel savings and maintenance savings. And if you’re a fleet operator, those are real,” said Stoltzfus. “If you can save money on fuel, and you can save money on maintenance, that’s a win across the board.”

Those savings aside, several states still have few or no e-buses. Only one electric bus is operating in Mississippi, while none are operating in the Dakotas and West Virginia. Even Wyoming, a state where GOP legislative members introduced a bill to ban electric vehicles by 2035 — curiously timed with California's rule aimed at phasing out the sale of gas-powered cars by 2035 — has 26 electric buses, according to CALSTART data.

“We have not delved into the reasons why these states in particular have low rates of adoption of zero-emission buses,” said Hynes.

Interest in e-buses is across the board, regardless of the size of the transit agency. California is likely the most robust e-bus market, Stoltzfus added, but he noted even customers in "very red states" are still very interested in running zero-emission vehicles.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.
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