Are Electric Buses Really Green & Environmentally Friendly? 

Are Electric Buses Really Green & Environmentally Friendly? 

In recent years, electric mobility has become one of our most effective tools in the fight against climate change as its environmentally friendly nature provides multiple benefits to communities and the planet. Electric vehicles are often praised for their potential when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions along with improving air quality, making them an attractive and viable alternative to oil-powered transport. Advancements in battery technology have made it possible to increase the levels of vehicle operability, presenting a unique opportunity for public transport providers who are looking to electrify their fleets and embrace more sustainable transportation alternatives. The growing popularity of electric vehicles and the transition to them, however, is a topic surrounded by many challenges and hurdles, with a lot of questions being raised regarding whether or not this is a feasible transport solution and if they are as environmentally friendly as it is often claimed. In this article, we’re going to look at just how “green” and environmentally friendly electric buses are, what their role is in the future of urban mobility and what are some of the major obstacles that transit agencies are currently facing in the transition to electrifying their fleets.

Why The Electrification Of Public Transport Systems Matters

Climate advocates and policymakers across the U.S. seem to have reached a consensus that the electrification of public transportation systems remains one of our most viable options in achieving climate goals along with alleviating issues such as noise and air pollution in cities and reducing the impact that the sector has on the nation’s economy and public health. Transit buses are considered highly suitable for electrification since they have a higher capacity for transporting more passengers than other vehicle classes and run on shorter, fixed routes. Electric buses are deemed to be more fuel-efficient than standard diesel buses and come with fewer moving parts. This can help agencies achieve significant cost savings in the long run regarding decreasing fuel and maintenance costs. Additional environmental benefits for communities include improved air quality through zero harmful tailpipe emissions, less noise pollution, and better transit experiences.  

The latest available data from the U.S. Department of Transportation shows that the number of transit battery electric buses (BEBs) in operation around the U.S. grew by over 112 percent from 2018 to 2021. Since 2021, it was concluded that more than 1,300 zero-emission transit buses were delivered nationwide or awarded to various transit agencies via grants. However, this amounts to only 2 percent of the transit bus fleet in the U.S. More recent statistics show that adoption of zero-emission buses in the US has since grown by over 12 percent in 2023, according to official data provided by CALSTART in a survey titled ‘’Zeroing on Zero-emission Buses”. It was estimated that 6,147 vehicles are currently in circulation around the nation or are already purchased and in preparation for deployment. The latest data puts California at the forefront as a leader in the nationwide adoption of Zero Emission Buses (ZEBs), with an impressive count of 1,946 buses, amounting to around 32 percent of all battery electric buses (BEBs) in the nation. This correlates directly to its current policies which state that all new sales of transit buses in the state must be zero-emission by 2030

Substantial federal funding is currently being directed toward the electrification of public transit across the nation, with New York State being a prime example, having secured a $116 million grant to electrify a large portion of MTA’s buses, along with a comprehensive workforce development program and another $57M in funding that is to be divided among seven counties across the state. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which operates the largest public bus system in North America, says that this transition will benefit states beyond just New York City. By adhering to current goals of adopting zero-emission bus fleets by 2040, the agency predicts that a reduction of over 500,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved on an annual scale. By eliminating tailpipe emissions, riders and transit staff can enjoy cleaner air during their journeys, with additional benefits to communities as a whole. Aside from improving air quality in cities, zero-emissions buses are also quieter than diesel buses, emphasizing their capabilities in alleviating noise pollution. The widespread adoption of zero-emission buses is also set to improve connectivity and accessibility during trips as new buses come equipped with the latest technologies.

The Environmental Impact Of Electric Buses: Are They Really Green?

Unlike conventional vehicles, EVs are known to produce significantly less GHG emissions, particularly if the electricity used to power them is generated from renewable energy sources such as hydroelectric, solar, or wind. One of the main advantages that come from electric buses is the fact that they do not emit any harmful substances into the atmosphere since they have no exhaust pipe and do not burn fuel to operate. In a scenario where public transit replaces conventional diesel buses with electric ones, we can expect to see a drastic reduction in the levels of urban pollution, leading to better air quality in cities and additional environmental benefits. In the case of internal combustion vehicles, a variety of harmful substances such as nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulate matter (PM), or carbon dioxide (CO2) are being continuously dispersed into the atmosphere, the result from which includes noise and air pollution, along with a gradual health decline among populations.  

Electric buses are considered to be more energy efficient. Electric motors are capable of converting a higher percentage of battery energy into propulsion when compared to internal combustion engines. The batteries inside electric buses range from 1.4 to 7.7 times more efficient than a diesel bus, meaning that a diesel bus generates as much as 1 1⁄2 to 8 times the global warming emissions as that of an electric bus, with varying figures depending on the region. Electric buses also benefit from regenerative braking technology, which enables the storage and recycling of any used energy. Electric buses come equipped with high-capacity batteries where the energy needed to power the electric motor is stored. Additionally, newer electric buses are designed with modular battery systems, making it much easier to adjust the capacity based on the specific needs of each route. 

Behind these claims and so far known facts, however, lies another question often raised regarding their sustainability, in particular when it comes to the emissions generated by the electricity used to power them. Some claims have been made that the operating phase of such a vehicle is responsible for the greater environmental impact when compared to its entire life cycle. Advocates of electric-powered vehicles say that green buses perform very well, regardless of how the electricity is sourced with a drastically lower carbon footprint than other conventionally powered models out there. Experts argue that electric buses could make a significant contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions but for them to make a real, lasting impact and deliver the most benefits – the energy they use needs to come from renewable sources. Only then could we consider them as a zero-emission transportation option.  

It would therefore be reasonable to assume that the environmental performance of electric buses correlates directly to the energy supply of the particular country in which they are made and will be deployed later on. This is of extreme importance even in countries where energy production is mainly based on fossil fuels as the environmental impact of electric buses is still much lower than that of internal combustion vehicles. We’ve also seen that energy grids are getting cleaner by the year. Public transport operators have also had the opportunity to choose from a wide range of cleaner, renewable energy sources. This includes investing in solar panels that are installed directly on the rooftops of depots or using independent renewable energy contracts.

What Are Some Of The Challenges Associated With Transitioning to Electric Buses?

The electrification of bus fleets presents an array of challenges for transport operators. The biggest hurdle often has to do with the initial costs that are involved in purchasing electric buses along with securing funds for the required charging infrastructure. For many cities, the kind of initial investment can be incredibly daunting as many transit agencies are already facing budget cuts and often have funding issues. The upfront purchase of electrical buses comes at a noticeably higher price than conventional buses as a result of the newer and more expensive technology that is being used in them along with the required charging infrastructure. It’s currently estimated that an eclectic bus is about 50% more expensive than conventional ICE buses. While this initial investment can put a strain on any agency, many seem to agree that after the transition phase, the prices for operating electric buses will be much lower than conventional fuel buses. Further difficulties revolve around operational challenges, such as managing the schedules for charging buses and ensuring services run uninterrupted, which creates a rather big logistical hurdle.  

Grants to incentivize the installation of infrastructure are also in motion in various parts of the nation, however, this remains a very expensive option. According to a report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance 2022, the upfront infrastructure costs are thought to be between $20,000 – 25,000 (€19,600 – 24,500) per electric bus, while taking into account the investments for the real estate (centralized depots) and charging stations. Another challenge is matching the bus fleet size with the corresponding charging infrastructure. This requires meticulous planning, taking into account existing routes, schedules, and demand from passengers. Planners must collaborate closely with their energy provider along with technology experts to create a robust charging network that can accommodate the operational needs of the entire fleet. Charging multiple electric buses simultaneously could also create a significant demand on electrical grids, which would also require careful coordination with local utility providers so that energy demand is managed effectively.  

Technology-driven solutions, such as intelligent route optimization, could be very helpful in enhancing the efficiency of electric buses. By leveraging data analytics and predictive AI modeling, planners can effectively optimize their routes, reduce any downtime, and improve the overall performance of their fleets, along with providing consistent and reliable services to passengers. Another challenge has to do with the availability of spare parts as electric bus technology is relatively new and qualified expertise as well as staff required for maintaining the components might be limited. Communication with bus manufacturers and replacements can be a lengthy and tedious process that can often cause delays in services as well as make buses unusable. The training of transit staff will also be essential in ensuring that they can handle these new technologies while also keeping up with the regular workflow and keeping any disturbances to a minimum.

What We Can Learn From Transit Agencies So Far Regarding The Use Of Electric Buses?

Experiences concerning electric buses are currently mixed and seem to vary depending on the agency. This is based on several factors including whether or not adopting zero-emission vehicles is a priority for the leaders of that particular region or transit providers, as well as the availability of funding and incentives. Other reasons consist of how knowledgeable their workforce is, whether there is sufficient charging infrastructure, or whether agencies can handle potential breakdowns and failures and can obtain manufacturing parts. Creating the right conditions for supplying the energy demand needed for the operation of buses can also be an issue as well as the lack of a feasible strategy on how to effectively implement these new technologies. Experts in the field agree that while electrifying transportation is good for the environment it should not be prioritized over delivering quality, reliable services to passengers. Our priority should be to focus on sustainable practices within transit that deliver fast, efficient, and reliable services to passengers. This is what will get people to transit and out of their cars. If electric buses are unreliable or incapable of keeping up with demand or service quality, they should not be pushed over regular transit vehicles that could potentially deliver more results in the long run.

So far billions in taxpayer dollars have been spent in the U.S. to help agencies with the electrification of public transit systems, in an attempt to achieve greater reductions in carbon emissions. Despite these efforts, cities around the nation are dealing with broken-down e-buses that cannot be fixed due to the unavailability of parts or simply because repairs have proved to be too expensive. This has resulted in some states having postponed the transition or having scrapped their electric fleets altogether. Public officials in Asheville, North Carolina, have recently voiced their frustration regarding a million-dollar investment in electric buses that were purchased in 2018, with three out of five having been rendered completely out of service and unusable due to issues with software, mechanical problems and an inability to obtain replacement parts. Similarly, Colorado Springs’ Mountain Metropolitan Transit reported that two out of their four electric buses purchased in 2021 are currently not running. The investment cost the agency $1.2 million per bus, with the sum being paid for by government grants. 

In 2020, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) had the third-largest EV fleet in the U.S. Currently, the agency’s $24 million fleet which consists of 25 electric buses is sitting in depots and collecting dust. The agency has since stated that it experienced significant problems with faulty electric buses, forcing the agency to sideline the entire fleet. One of the buses has even been reported to have burst into flames while being parked at a depot. In 2023, the Denver Regional Transportation District (RTD) placed an order for 17 new battery-electric buses in an attempt to accelerate their sustainability goals. Several months later they canceled the order, stating that an extensive assessment determined that existing facilities could not support the latest low/zero-emission propulsion technologies. Agencies have openly expressed their desire to move fast in the direction of electrifying their fleets as they are under increasing pressure to reduce emissions, however, many have since realized that they need to take a step back and carefully assess the situation and come up with a feasible plan and an approach that works in the long run. Many agencies simply lack the infrastructure needed to store, charge, and repair their fleets while also being somewhat unsure as to whether or not their local utilities are prepared to supply all the power that is required to keep buses charged and running. Other issues include the reliability of newer bus models and finding staff that is qualified enough to fix and maintain these vehicles.

The Community Benefits Of Electric Buses Shouldn’t Be Overlooked

Bus networks play a critical role in the lives of millions of Americans, providing essential transport services to those who cannot or do not wish to drive, along with transporting up to half of all the nation’s children to and from school every single day. The majority of the buses in the U.S. remain largely powered by fossil fuels that pollute the atmosphere such as diesel which poses a serious risk to public health along with further contributing to global warming. A recent study conducted by researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health concluded that replacing diesel school buses with electric school buses could yield around $247,600 in accumulated health and climate benefits, per individual bus. Electric buses have also been shown to aid in decreasing the number of school children with asthma, which is among the most common reasons for recorded absences.

Tailpipe emissions that come from internal combustion engine vehicles are proven to cause air pollution, which has a significant impact on the well-being of residents in urban areas, resulting in a variety of health issues. According to data provided by the American Lung Association, transitioning to a nationwide electric transportation system by 2050 could potentially save around 6,300 lives, each year and aid in avoiding more than 93,000 asthma attacks and 416,000 lost work days, on an annual scale. Battery electric vehicles, including Battery Electric Buses (BEBs) and Electric School Buses (ESBs), run with zero tailpipe emissions, while plug-in hybrid electric vehicles do produce emissions to some extent, however, it’s still considered much less than conventional road vehicles. EVs also come with less brake dust pollution than standard cars due to regenerative braking, something that could be of great importance to areas experiencing severe pollution, which are often communities of color and low-income communities.  

Noise pollution levels in most urban areas are estimated to be around 60 decibels, with regular spikes going up to 85 decibels or more. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that traffic noise comes in second place after air pollution when it comes to impact on public health, with various studies claiming there is a direct link between noise exposure and increased risk of insomnia, high-stress levels, cardiometabolic diseases, and cardiovascular diseases and strokes among populations. Unlike internal combustion engine vehicles, electric buses, including BEBs and ESBs are incredibly quiet due to a lack of engine noise and could make a significant difference in creating more peaceful neighborhoods. Many experts claim this to be an often-overlooked advantage that could dramatically affect the stress levels of not only residents of urban areas but also drivers.

Conclusion

While the commitment of transportation authorities in the U.S. to reduce emissions and move in the direction of sustainable mobility is crucial at this time as it is applaudable, it’s clear that more time is needed to test and develop technologies surrounding electric buses, along with addressing current failures and any arising issues with software, batteries, and infrastructure. A good example of an agency being proactive despite setbacks and obstacles is the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) who are working on fixing issues with its fleet of battery-electric buses, while also initiating a full transition to hybrid diesel buses. The agency has currently approved the purchase of 10 hydrogen fuel-cell buses which are more environmentally friendly, affordable, easier to maintain, and much quieter than a standard diesel bus.