The charge towards the electric bus revolution

The full-scale electrification of the bus fleet will take large amounts of electrical energy and significant investment in charging infrastructure, says Siemens’s Bernard Magee

Around a fifth (21%) of UK greenhouse gas emissions came from road transport in 2017.  According to Public Health England (PHE), air pollution is the biggest environmental threat to health in the UK, with between 28,000 and 36,000 deaths a year attributed to long-term exposure. Studies have proven that air pollution is known to cause the development of coronary heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease and lung cancer, and exacerbate asthma.

The UK bus industry has acknowledged more needs to be done and has targeted the phasing-out of petrol and diesel. The Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT), an organisation that represents more than 95% of the UK’s bus industry has pledged to only invest in low-emission vehicles from 2025, over concerns surrounding climate change and air pollution.

2,220 electric buses are in use across Europe and London’s electric bus fleet of over 200 electric buses is the largest deployment (with a total of 377 e-buses in the UK). Transport for London has plans to add a further 78 electric double-deck buses as part of its ambition to have all electric buses in the city by 2037.  The effect of electrification will reduce bus NOx emissions by an average of 90% in the capital by October 2020.

The challenges facing the UK and Europe to develop sustainable clean transport options requires the deployment of technologies and solutions that integrate with existing infrastructures, which creates difficulties with charging practicalities, grid demands and financial challenges.

The predictability of schedules and recharging times allows for overnight charging (depot charging) making it the predominant form used to replenish e-buses today. Moving forward particularly in cities with long routes, fast-charging high-power choices such as pantographs, retractable apparatus mounted, more commonly, at some point along the bus route, present a form of opportunity charging for e-buses.

The full-scale electrification of buses is going to take large amounts of electrical energy and doubts have been expressed over the grid’s ability to meet the demands for public transport. Supplying an electric fleet of buses with energy creates significant pressures, particularly during periods of high demand. Solutions and smart charging management software can shift charging loads to specific times and energy storage systems and off-grid green energy options can compensate for the rise and fall of demand.

The move to an electric future offers many benefits but requires substantial financial investments. Even with the cost of batteries and chargers gradually declining alongside technological advancements, the upfront costs of most e-buses will be substantially higher than their internal combustion engine equivalents. While this disparity is reversed after acquisition, the financial barriers go beyond acquiring a new bus fleet. At present only 1,600 technicians nationwide are qualified in electric vehicle and hybrid maintenance, and they are almost exclusively employed within manufacturers’ franchised dealer networks which has a knock-on effect for the cost and convenience of repairs.

Bus operators face major challenges to invest in a charging infrastructure to support electric fleets and these combined investments – in fleets, maintenance and charging infrastructure – require considerable capital expenditure. This demand has seen a surge in innovative financial collaborations between energy companies, operators, manufacturers, and cities and councils to help minimise risks and spread costs along the supply chain.

A finance model can take into account the total cost of ownership of a fleet, including its maintenance and associated infrastructure, outlining all the capital expenditure, operating expenditure and any financing cost. Packages can cover an ‘end-to-end’ solution, capturing everything from vehicles to charging points and infrastructure. Working with public and private fleet managers to build depots, capable of delivering megawatts of electricity, that are scalable and financed with no upfront capital outlay - requires specialist financing and knowledge.

Darren Shirley, chief executive of Campaign for Better Transport, has his own views on achieving clean transport: “There is a pressing need to accelerate the move away from diesel to zero-emission buses, in order to meet carbon emissions and air pollution targets,” he said. “The government should put in place deadlines for all new buses to be electric or hydrogen-powered by 2025, and all buses on the road to be zero-emission by 2035.  

“This means we need to rapidly deploy zero emission technology and tackle any barriers to uptake.  This can be supported through the government introducing a ‘fleet and depot transition fund’ to get infrastructure in place, and a ‘bus manufacturing fund’ to help the UK bus industry scale up to build more zero-emission buses.  With this support in place, all bus operators can and must make cleaning up their fleets a priority,” Shirley said.

The electric bus revolution is under way.  The Department for Transport announced a £50m fund to help create England’s first town with all-electric buses; by 2025 all the country’s buses are expected to be fully electric. £5bn of new funding has been promised for overhauling bus and cycle links for every region outside London. The five-year funding package will deliver approximately 4,000 new zero emission buses to make greener travel the convenient option.

There’s still an enormous amount of work to do that is going to need the coordination of multiple agencies, government policies, industry bodies, energy and transport planning, and financiers, but once all the correct infrastructure is in all the right places then the prize on offer is a sustainable clean transport future.

Bernard Magee is sales director, future grid and eMobility, at Siemens.