Transit Agencies Invest in Fleet Electrification

Transit agencies around the state are investing in fleet electrification to ensure that the state reaches fast approaching zero-emissions goals (Part 2 of a Series)

By Arianna Smith

Managing Editor

Transit California

California transit agencies are doing their part to help the state meet climate goals set last year to achieve net zero carbon pollution by 2045 by exploring new electrification options and expanding existing electric-powered fleets.  While some Association members have been using electric-powered fleet vehicles for years, some agencies are just beginning to embark upon pilot project experiments.  As with other zero- or low-emissions project energy sources, electric-powered transit options come with start-up and scale-up constraints, infrastructure challenges, and reliability issues that agencies must face as they work to reduce or eliminate fleet greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This article is Part 2 of a series; the July 2023 issue of Transit California featured California transit agencies’ efforts, challenges, and opportunities to meet zero emissions targets through hydrogen powered fleets.

Heavy and light rail systems in California, of course, largely already use electricity as their power source; therefore, agencies that operate heavy and light rail often consider ways of reducing GHG emissions in terms of implementing policies to ensure that their electric power comes from renewable, zero- or low-carbon sources.  Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) is a leader in this effort, according to its sustainability website: “BART trains are 100% electric, with over 97% of that power coming from zero and low-carbon sources including solar and hydro energy. BART is increasing its use of low-carbon, zero-carbon and renewable energy sources, with the goal of transitioning to 100% carbon-free by 2035 and 100% renewable energy by 2045.” Over 85% of the contracted energy comes from large hydroelectric, while 14.8% comes from wind, solar, and other eligible hydroelectric sources. Beyond its rolling stock power needs, BART is also beginning to support passenger vehicle electrification options: it is currently piloting EV charging stations at two of its station parking lots and at two operations and maintenance facilities.  

Transit operators of bus and ferry routes, meanwhile, are much less likely to have made full or even partial transitions away from fossil fueled fleets; most remain in early stages.  

A major accelerant to these electrification efforts is the $1.7 billion in grant funding awarded across the United States in June 2023 through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration (FTA) Low and No Emission Grants for Buses and Bus Facilities. Seven of the fourteen transit agencies in California that were awarded grants in 2023 are using part of their funds for adding or expanding their electric fleet, including purchases of BEBs and charging equipment, as well as workforce training and facility upgrades to accommodate new BEBs.

One grant beneficiary is the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), which was awarded $30 million to transition bus yards to accommodate a battery electric bus fleet, including the installation of 18 electric vehicle charging stations and structural platforms. 

“We have the greenest fleet in North America and are committed to ensuring our battery electric buses will deliver the same environmental benefits and service features,” said Jeff Tumlin, SFMTA Director of Transportation. “I want to thank our congressional delegation for their leadership and support. This award will go to modernizing our facilities and critically assist us in becoming an all-electric and carbon neutral fleet.” 

Additionally, in February 2022, the SFMTA brought into service the first of its new all-electric buses in a new pilot project. As part of the program, “the SFMTA purchased 12 40-feet zero-emission battery electric buses (BEBs) and is testing them in service throughout the City to evaluate how they perform on congested and hilly routes” according to its Battery-Electric Bus Program website.

Some agencies have worked to bring electric fleets online as part of an agency-wide commitment to equity throughout their service regions by reducing health disparities and increasing transit access.  In 2021, LA Metro transitioned an entire popular San Fernando Valley bus line to all-electric buses with an emphasis on providing service to areas with criteria associated with mobility barriers.  Fifty-five percent of the 36 bus stops are located in “Equity Focus Communities,” defined as having significant populations with low income households earning less than $60,000 annually, BIPOC residents, and households without a car.  

When the transition was announced, Metro CEO Stephanie N. Wiggins commented, “Our zero-emission bus goals are an important part of our overall strategy to reduce our agency’s carbon footprint and become carbon neutral. We continue as a transit leader in our march towards a more sustainable and resilient transportation system that will benefit our customers, our industry and our planet.”  

A few agencies that run bus services have come to the conclusion that electrifying the entirety of their fleets is the best way to meet GHG emissions reduction goals, although most such agencies are still in the process of transitioning away from fossil fueled vehicles.  The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) embarked on its commitment to electrifying its entire 500 bus fleet by 2040 with the $3 million Advanced Transit Bus Vehicle-Grid-Integration pilot project.  It started with the purchase of ten all-electric buses.  

A report on the project noted that the electrification goal required major operating changes for VTA: “Valley Transportation Authority plans to meet California’s statewide objective of a fully zero-emission bus fleet by 2040. Electrification is an essential part of that strategy and requires a shift in vehicle type and changes in energy and fueling strategies, operations, and other business factors.” However, even with such large scale changes, the report concluded that the VTA, its riders, and local ratepayers will ultimately benefit in many ways, including from reduced energy consumption, reduced GHG emissions, and reduced maintenance costs. 

As noted in Transit California’s July 2023 feature story, California bus operator transit agencies that are leading the way on a transition to low or zero emissions buses are currently testing both hydrogen fuel cell buses (FCEBs) and battery electric buses (BEBs) to determine which technologies work most efficiently and cost-effectively along different types of geography and route lengths.  The Alameda Contra Costa Transit District (AC Transit) currently operates 36 hydrogen FCEBs and 7 BEBs, with a goal of replacing its entire 636 bus fleet with 72% FCEBs and 28% BEBs by 2040.  

While “both battery electric and fuel cell electric bus technologies have start-up and scale-up challenges,” one of the most significant hurdles to adopting hundreds of BEBs is the charging infrastructure, both at AC Transit-operated sites and for the regional grid capacity, according to AC Transit’s Zero-Emissions Bus Transition Plan: “With an initial BEB deployments, charging requirements are met relatively easily with a handful of plug-in pedestal chargers and small infrastructure investment. Scaling to a large BEB deployment requires a significantly different approach to charging and substantial infrastructure upgrade and smart charging software.  Plug-in charging would not be practical for a large deployment . . . AC Transit is actively working on the utility partnership by participating in Pacific Gas and Electric’s (PG&E) Electric Vehicle Fleet program. This partnership ensures that proper design standards for fleet electrification infrastructure are leveraged into each of our BEB infrastructure installations. Participation in the program ensures that adequate grid capacity will be available and interconnected to our site prior to the planned commissioning dates of our systems.”

The San Francisco Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) is another agency that is testing capabilities for both hydrogen fuel- and electric-powered fleets to transition away from its diesel-powered ferries. In 2022, WETA announced a $3.4 million grant from FTA to build a zero-emission electric ferry for “short hop” service to relieve traffic congestion, set to begin service in 2025.  “We expect to gain significant operational efficiencies by transitioning away from diesel propulsion on top of the obvious climate and pollution benefits. Maintaining electric vessels is expected to be significantly more affordable than diesel equipment. I hope this means that we can offer more public ferry service per dollar as we switch the fleet over to clean propulsion,” said Seamus Murphy, Executive Director of WETA.

However, challenges loom for building out supporting infrastructure for electric ferries: “Developing the shoreside electrification infrastructure we’ll need for fleet conversion is an enormous, complex piece of the puzzle,” acknowledged Murphy.  “In our service footprint, we have multiple electric providers to work with along with the municipalities and port districts. We’re keeping public access to the shoreline and collaborative opportunities front of mind in developing our infrastructure plan. We know we aren’t the only customer increasing our shoreside power needs, so we’re looking for ways to partner with private and public agencies for mutually beneficial projects. . . . The reliability of the grid is a real issue for anyone looking to transition to electric power.”  Additionally, “[all] California transit agencies face significant hurdles in the zero-emission transition. Ferry operators have an added challenge in that there is a much smaller market for zero-emission passenger ferries compared to buses and locomotives. We and our colleagues in the public ferry sector are working with naval architects and shipyards to essentially build a new market in the United States.” 

One of the most important factors in transit electrification feasibility is a state’s public utilities commission (PUC) policy choices, which can help ensure that transit electrification projects have what they need to succeed, according to David Farnsworth and Brian O’Malley in their 2022 Regulatory Assistance Project report Transit Electrification: Challenges and Opportunities: “Existing utility practices and policies can help or hinder the ability of transit providers to successfully transition to electrification. . . . PUC actions can directly affect the cost of electrifying public transit, and because the technology itself is costly, anything that PUCs can do to remove barriers and reduce cost will be helpful to transit agencies.”

In 2023, the Association sponsored legislation to prioritize electricity access to transit agencies when facing grid disruptions; in addition to bolstering existing emergency service operations, this measure would have provided assurances of a more stable grid for agencies considering the addition of electrified vehicles to their fleets.  Unfortunately, the bill was overshadowed by the budget discussions that resulted in billions of dollars of dedicated funds for transit agencies struggling under the weight of post-pandemic “fiscal cliff” shortfalls, and it was held without a vote in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.  

California’s transit agencies continue to lead the way in addressing GHG emissions in the transportation sector.  Murphy of WETA sums up the experience of many California transit agencies beginning their electrification journey: “We’re proud to be on the cutting edge, but being first is hard. . . . Fortunately, we have great partners at the local, state, and federal levels working hard to make sure we have what we need to succeed.”

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