• Natural Gas News

    From the Editor: Risk & Reward [Gas in Transition]


Transit fleet operators around the world are looking to decarbonise quickly. Many are turning to battery electric buses, but for one Canadian transit operator, electric has not been the best option.

by: Dale Lunan

Posted in:

NGW News Alert, Premium, Global Gas Perspectives Articles, January 2024, Energy Transition, Gas for Transport

From the Editor: Risk & Reward [Gas in Transition]

Trucks and buses make up only about 8% of global vehicle sales. But according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), they contribute more than 35% of all direct CO2 emissions attributed to road transport.

Electrification of the transit sector – which accounted for 6% of emissions from transportation in 2022 – is gaining momentum, but most of the activity is concentrated in China, where 90% of the world’s battery electric buses (BEB) and trucks are found.

Elsewhere, converting transit operations to electric represents a delicate risk-reward balance, and the experience of Edmonton Transit Services in Alberta, Canada presents a cautionary tale about rushing too quickly into the next decarbonisation solution.

The City of Edmonton began studying BEB options in 2016, when only two manufacturers, Winnipeg’s New Flyer Industries and a Chinese firm, BYB, were providing vehicles to North American markets.

Both the New Flyer and the BYB offerings were tested rigorously by Edmonton’s transit system, in the heat of summer and the coldest of northern Alberta’s long winters, which are often the death knell of any electric vehicle.

Based on the results of that study, the city was advised to go slow in its transit electrification plans with a pilot acquisition of five buses.

“When you buy more than five buses, it’s more than a pilot project – it becomes a real business,” said Pierre Ducharme, electrification expert at Montreal’s MARCOM Management Consultants, which reported on the results of Edmonton Transit’s investigations into BEBs. “Buying five buses gives you the opportunity not only to test the buses, but to see if you will change the way you do things to adapt to those buses.”

‘Go slow’ was a no go

But Edmonton’s city council ignored Ducharme’s recommendations and placed an order for 60 buses, at $1.2mn each, with California-based Proterra, a new entrant in the bus manufacturing sector with very little experience making electric buses.

“You had a new company, and a new bus, and a new propulsion technology,” Ducharme said. “That’s three things that don’t make for a low-risk project, does it? It was a high-risk – a very gutsy – decision on their part to go to Proterra.”

The risk, it’s safe to say, didn’t pay off. According to Proterra, the buses were supposed to have a full-charge range of up to 340 km; Edmonton Transit, however, was getting less than 120 km per charge, enough to put the units on the streets for the morning rush between 5 am and 8:30 am and again, after being charged, during the evening rush between 2:30 pm and 6:30 pm.

On top of that, the units were equipped with diesel heaters to provide warmth in the passenger cabin – which effectively limited the emissions reduction benefits of the BEBs – and $200,000 worth of special blankets were needed to keep the batteries warm.

By the fall of 2023, three-quarters of the 60 Proterra buses were out of service due to lack of parts to service them, and Proterra itself was in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Earlier this month, it received approval from the US Bankruptcy Court to sell its transit bus business to Phoenix Motor and in November 2023 agreed to sell its battery and drivetrain manufacturing business to Volvo Battery Solutions.

Also in Alberta, Calgary Transit took a more measured approach, deciding to first acquire 14 shuttle buses from Vancouver-based Vicinity Motor Corp. The order, worth about $6mn, was placed in 2021, with delivery promised the following year. As of November 2023, however, the units had yet to be delivered, leaving Calgary Transit to continue to rely on its compressed natural gas buses for a low-carbon transit solution, even as it rolled out plans to deploy 259 40-foot BEBs by 2026, aided by a $325mn investment from the federal government.

CNG/RNG a better option

Uncertainties surrounding the ability of electric buses to operate through cold Canadian winters can easily be alleviated by turning to compressed natural gas (CNG), and more recently compressed renewable natural gas (RNG) to fuel transit systems.

About the same time that Edmonton was initially contemplating electric buses, Calgary began adding CNG-fueled buses to its transit fleet and now has a fleet of more than 170.

Canadian gas utility Enbridge, meanwhile, is helping an Ontario transit system go one better. Working with Hamilton’s public transit system, Hamilton Street Railway, it introduced Ontario’s first bus fueled by RNG in 2021.

The RNG is produced for Enbridge by Stormfisher at its London digester, which uses organic waste diverted from landfills. That gives the RNG a carbon-negative rating since capturing landfill gas and upgrading it to pipeline quality RNG eliminates CO2 emissions from the landfill and replaces CO2 emissions from diesel-fueled buses.

The RNG bus was added to HSR’s growing fleet of CNG units, which the transit service expects will replace all of its diesel-fueled buses over the next two years. Three years into the pilot of the RNG bus, HSR has deemed it a success.

“The pilot was successful insofar that we did not experience any adverse operating effects or impacts to service,” HSR told Gas in Transition in an email. “It is less expensive than diesel fuel and provides a cleaner fuel technology. We have deemed it to be a means to work towards net zero while other technologies emerge in the market.”

California’s Clean Energy Fuels has long recognised the environmental benefits of RNG and is now the largest supplier of the fuel to transit fleets across the US, leveraging its leading position as a CNG distributor. According to its website, its RNG offering is being used by transit fleets from Los Angeles to New York City, “successfully bringing the benefits of renewable natural gas (RNG) to billions across North America.”

That sounds like a far better value proposition than a $60mn purchase of electric buses which are now parked at the curb, with little prospect of becoming a valued contributor to Edmonton’s decarbonisation aspirations.