Calif. aims for zero-emission bus transit by 2040

Source: Debra Kahn, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, October 2, 2018

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California is heading toward a zero-emission bus fleet, but hurdles remain.

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) is nearing the finish line on a regulation that would aim to have the state’s more than 200 public transit agencies exclusively using zero-emission buses by 2040. The agency held a hearing on the proposal last week and heard from transit agencies around the state that are worried about increased costs and potentially reduced reliability of battery-electric and fuel-cell buses.

The rule, expected to be adopted early next year, sets escalating targets for the percentage of new bus purchases that must be zero-emission, starting in 2023. It wouldn’t apply to private fleets, or to trolleys or shuttle buses. Specialized buses like double-deckers and articulated buses would be phased in starting either in 2026 or when they have zero-emission versions that have passed Federal Transit Administration tests.

Environmental groups and some board members lobbied to make the rule binding, but staff said they didn’t want to require transit agencies to get rid of buses prematurely in an effort to meet the 2040 target. Some agencies hold on to buses for 18 years, far beyond the 12 years required to get federal funding for replacement.

“It may not be 100 percent [compliance]; it may be 95 percent, it may be 97 percent,” said Jack Kitowski, the head of CARB’s Mobile Source Control Division.

Statewide, transit agencies owned roughly 13,000 buses as of the end of 2017. Only 153 of them are currently zero-emission buses (ZEBs), with 433 more on the way. Sixteen agencies, including some of the state’s largest, already have targets to achieve zero emissions by 2040 or sooner.

Alameda County in the San Francisco Bay Area, which has a goal of converting its 632-bus fleet to zero-emissions by 2035, currently has 13 hydrogen fuel-cell buses and will soon receive another 10, plus five electric buses.

But the agency has range anxiety; 65 percent of its routes are more than 200 miles long. While fuel-cell buses can handle 90 percent of them, only 10 percent of them can be served by electric buses, according to AC Transit external affairs representative Estee Sepulveda. Some routes are outside the reach of either technology. “Neither one is 100 percent,” she said.

A recent AC Transit study estimated it would cost $2 billion through 2037 to convert its parking facilities to handle the ZEBs. On top of that, while a 40-foot diesel-fueled electric bus costs $500,000, an electric one costs $900,000, and a hydrogen-fueled one costs $1.3 million. Buying all electric buses would cost an additional $419 million compared with a business-as-usual scenario. Fuel-cell buses would cost $822 million extra.

A bus manufacturer warned that even as battery prices drop, overall costs aren’t going to follow suit in the near term, because companies are focused on improving their current range of 175 to 225 miles. “The challenge will be for transit that instead of taking that cost reduction, we’re going to stuff more batteries on the bus,” said David Warren, director of sustainable transportation for New Flyer of America. “Don’t expect the cost of these battery-electric buses to come down.”

There are a panoply of funding options available, including several CARB grant programs, utility-backed infrastructure incentives and rate structures, and credits from CARB’s low-carbon fuel standard. Representatives from transit agencies across the state lined up to urge regulators to secure more dedicated long-term funding.

The rule “assumes significant state funding that is not guaranteed,” said Paul Jablonski, CEO of the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System. “If we have to reduce service just to buy and operate zero-emission buses, this would obviously be extremely counterproductive.”

Regulators agreed that more funding is needed. “We can’t just sit back and say, ‘You meet our goals, and everything is going to be okay,'” said CARB Chairwoman Mary Nichols. “We clearly need to be working with the Legislature.”

The rule has different phase-in schedules based on the size of the agency. Those with 100 or more buses at peak hours, or more than 65 buses in the state’s most highly polluted regions, would have to reach 25 percent saturation by 2023 and 50 percent by 2026; smaller ones would have until 2026 to reach 25 percent.

It also has wiggle room in case buses aren’t available to meet agencies’ mileage requirements, and incentives to encourage early action: If 1,000 zero-emission buses are purchased statewide by 2020, the state will waive the 2023 purchase requirement, according to the current proposal. Agencies can also earn extra credits for buying the buses ahead of schedule or for having bike-sharing, car-sharing or vanpool programs.