Got Science? Podcast | Episode 41 Electric Buses: The People’s Electric Vehicle

September 4, 2018

Dr. Jimmy O’Dea talks about a future with electric buses, trucks, and other heavy duty vehicles, and the positive impact they will have on global warming emissions.

In this episode Jimmy O'Dea talks about:

  • The benefits of electric buses
  • Why a future with all sorts of electric trucks is not that far off
  • What it was like to take a ride through California on an electric bus
  • The impact that electric buses have on global warming

Timing and cues:

  • Opener (0:00-1:06)
  • Intro (1:06-2:09)
  • Interview pt 1 (2:09-13:08)
  • Break (13:08-13:35)
  • Interview pt 2 (13:35-22:29)
  • Bonus Segment (22:29-27:00)
  • This Week in Science History Throw (27:00-27:04)
  • This Week in Science History (27:04-29:18)
  • Outro (29:18-30:00)

Related content:

Full Transcript

Abby: Thanks Colleen. So we're here with Jimmy O'Dea at the Union of Concerned Scientists office in Oakland. Hey, Jimmy. How are you doing?

Jimmy: Good, Abby. How are you?

Abby: Pretty good. I'm excited to be talking to you today. We're gonna be talking about electric buses. I hear you're quite the expert on them.

Jimmy: Thank you.

Abby: So why don't we just start at the beginning. Tell me, how long have electric buses been on the road? I don't know that I've ever seen one.

Jimmy: Well, it depends on where you live. The modern electric bus has been on the road since about 2010 and that kind of parallels the electric cars that we see on the road. They've been on the road since about 2010, the Nissan Leaf, the Tesla. But we can go back a lot further and we've had electric trolley buses on the road for a long time since the late 1800s. Out here in California, we've had electric trolley buses in San Francisco since the 1930s and LA, even earlier, 1910s.

Abby: So we've had electric buses around for a long time but they've only begun to catch on in a lot of big cities recently it sounds like.

Jimmy: A lot of cities are making a transition to the new kind of electric buses that have battery pack on board. That's different than the electric trolley buses that have the overhead wires that people might see if they're in San Francisco or Seattle. That electric battery buses are picking up in great proportions of late, transit agencies like LA Metro, they're the second largest transit agency in the United States, they're gonna transition their entire bus fleet to zero emission buses by 2030.

Abby: Wow. So you said LA and Seattle. So that's two big West Coast cities. Are there any other places in the U.S. that are adopting or interested in these electric buses?

Jimmy: Yeah. Absolutely. Everywhere from Asheville to Nashville, Jacksonville, Greenville, South Carolina, electric buses are really being tested out and deployed in big and small cities across the country.

Abby: Now I live here in the city in Oakland and when I think about a bus, I think about all the times I've been stuck behind a bus with the windows rolled down on my car or maybe on a bike or walking and big fumes coming out of that bus, toxic, stinky fumes coming out of the tailpipe. Electric buses wouldn't have that, right?

Jimmy: No tailpipe emissions. This is one of the major selling points.

Abby: So no air pollution?

Jimmy: No air pollution at the tailpipe of the vehicle. Of course if you're generating electricity to power a bus, there's emissions associated with generating that electricity or if you're filling it with hydrogen, there's emissions associated with hydrogen produced for a fuel cell bus, but at the tailpipe, there's zero emissions.

Abby: So if a typical combustion engine bus or a diesel bus would be polluting, what kinds of things would we not be experiencing from an electric bus?

Jimmy: The two main pollutants that we avoid with an electric bus are particulate matter. And particulate matter is kind of like what it sounds like. It's these small particles, the soot-looking particles that you see coming out of a tailpipe of a diesel bus. These are small particles. They get into your lungs and really wreak havoc on a lot of different parts of our body. The other major pollutant that comes out of these vehicles is NOx pollution. NOx is precursor to ozone. So when you hear the air quality report on your local news station and they're talking about ozone pollution, NOx is what forms ozone.

Abby: Does NOx mean nauseous? What does NOx stand for?

Jimmy: N-O-X. And so it's nitrogen oxides and the X is just to distinguish that it could be one oxygen or two oxygens.

Abby: You said nitrogen oxide then is one of the things that's creating ozone which is a pollutant.

Jimmy: Exactly. And so ozone, also known as smog, damages many parts of people's bodies in broadly everything from premature birth to premature death have been associated or linked to both these types of pollutants. So eliminating them is a huge win for public health.

Abby: So just on the pollution benefits alone, electric buses sound great, a great improvement to the city life. Are there any other benefits to electric buses?

Jimmy: The other main one is global warming emissions. So a battery electric bus on the average grid in the United States has significantly lower emissions in both diesel and natural gas buses. So compared to diesel, a diesel bus compared to the national average grid today has 2.5 times more global warming emissions than a battery electric bus.

Abby: Wow. So that's a big improvement.

Jimmy: That's a huge improvement.

Abby: My question would be then, if these buses are running on batteries and they don't have a global warming pollution but those batteries, I mean these must be really big batteries. This is not like a little electric vehicle. You need a lot of power to move that bus around and to be running all day. So those batteries exist then?

Jimmy: Yeah. So it's really just the same batteries you have in a car but just more of them.

Abby: So more batteries.

Jimmy: More batteries and say an electric car. So there's more lithium-ion batteries. So nothing in particular that's unique about them compared to what's driving around in the Chevy bolt or a Tesla or whatnot.

Abby: And those batteries are strong enough then to go up and down hills and you don't need to stop and charge them while you have bus passengers on the bus, do you?

Jimmy: No. Absolutely not. These batteries...the buses have ranges today of several hundred miles depending on the route and depending on how many batteries you put on the bus that can handle the loads of most every route out there. There are some buses that do do this fast charge where they will stop and charge for five minutes and those buses have fewer batteries on them. And so it just depends on the transit agency, which strategy they wanna take.

Abby: So there aren't a whole lot of buses though on the road. If we were to electrify all of our buses, we know there would be air pollution benefits but since there aren't a whole lot compared to how many cars there are on the road, what kind of impact would they really have on climate?

Jimmy: Yeah. So it'll have a big impact. Every little bit helps so to speak. Just as one person purchasing an electric car won't have a big difference, one transit agency converting over to electric buses won't have a huge difference but taken in the entirety as a sum, it all adds up.

Abby: Well that does sound like a huge benefit for everyone, for a really wide segment of the population. Can you think of any disadvantages of electric buses in the communities that might want to adopt them?

Jimmy: No. Electric buses have zero tailpipe emissions, far better for the climate, total cost of ownership, they’re competitive if not lower than traditional fossil fuel buses. So you know with any new technology there’s a learning curve to adopting your new technology. You know you see some operators at transit agencies skeptical of the new technology, just like they were skeptical thirty years ago of natural gas buses when agencies were making the transition from diesel to natural gas. So, really no, any technology, there’s going to be a learning curve. Critics, I guess the fossil fuel, natural gas industry has latched onto some of the early bumps that some of the electric buses have experienced. But to me no. This is going to be stuff that’s overcome. There’s hundreds of these buses in the US, hundreds of thousands overseas. The technology is here and it’s ready.

Abby: It’s interesting that you mention natural gas, because I do remember years ago, when a lot of the buses were switching over to natural gas. There were signs on the buses that would say it’s a cleaner fuel. So how do electric buses actually match up to natural gas buses, which we know, those are cleaner than diesel. Are they that much better? Is it really worth it?

Jimmy: Yeah, compared to diesel, natural gas has lower levels of particulate matter and NOx but compared to diesel from a climate change perspective natural gas offers little to no benefits. Little to no benefits, pretty similar climate emissions as diesel. That all depends on what the amount of natural gas leaks are in the pipeline. Small increases in leaks of natural gas is much worse than diesel. So those brandings of clean vehicles on these natural gas buses is actually false advertising these days when we have electric buses that are significantly cleaner. Across the country and electric bus, the climate emissions range from about 20% to as much as 85% lower than a natural gas bus. The natural average is about 50% lower. So that’s the climate, significant benefits on climate. And of course zero tailpipe emissions from electric buses. So really electric is the best technology and we’re going to see a lot of transit agencies make that transition.

And buses, you know, since they're bigger vehicles, they have a lot more pollutants per mile than a car does on the order of a couple hundred times when you're talking about air pollutants. So there'll be significant benefits right away from just the air quality perspective. But thinking broadly, a heavy bus is pretty similar to a truck in a lot of ways. Heavy-duty vehicles...a lot of the supply chain parts will be similar and electric buses can be a precursor to a broader transformation and transition to electric trucks in getting the industry going and...

Abby: So what you're saying is that if we can electrify buses, that means we can electrify trucks?

Jimmy: Absolutely. It's a great place to start. And other similarities are a transit bus follows a fixed route, they go home, depot at a common garage at night. And this is a similarity that a lot of fleet trucks have. They might not follow the exact same route every day but they operate in a similar region and they go back to a home base at night. And so there's similar logistics that these fleets share between transit buses and other fleets.

Abby: So I guess you're talking about things like garbage trucks or moving vans or a moving truck...

Jimmy: Delivery trucks.

Abby: ...delivery trucks. So can you imagine a day where we'll see all of these big trucks at least inside the city electrified as well as buses?

Jimmy: Absolutely. You walk down a city street downtown Oakland and just about every truck you see in an urban environment can be electrified. It'll take a little bit of time to get there but most of these trucks are operating less than 100 miles a day which is well within today's range of battery technology. And yeah, it's really just a matter of getting these trucks on the road. Prices will come down as more trucks are deployed and the air will get cleaner.

[Break]

Abby: So what you're saying is that all these really exciting changes are coming to cities all across the U.S. You've mentioned Asheville, Nashville, Seattle, LA...that we might be seeing electric buses and electric trucks in the cities soon enough. So does that mean that the U.S. is a leader?

Jimmy: Unfortunately not. Kudos to all the cities that have made the progress that they've made but the United States is actually a laggard in a lot of the electric technology. The world leader is really China. There, today, are several hundred thousand buses, already electric buses, already deployed in China.

For comparison, the United States has total buses, diesel and natural gas, everything, about 70,000. So A, for one, there's a lot more buses in China to begin with.

Then two, they are flight years ahead of us in terms of electrifying not just buses, electric trucks. They've obviously had air quality issues in China and they're going after it in a big way.

Abby: So we have some catching up to do is what I'm hearing you say.

Jimmy: Absolutely.

Abby: Are there cities here in the U.S. that have not made commitments to electrifying buses or they should? Or they're just obvious candidates for it?

Jimmy: If you're a big city and you're not testing out the technology, you're way behind the curve. Cities like LA have already made commitments to make this transition by 2030. That's a really admirable commitment. New York City has indicated they wanna head that way, haven't put a timeframe on it. Chicago has bought some buses, Washington DC has bought some buses. It would be great if these cities made commitments and really show their leadership on this technology. So yeah, if you're a city that is waiting for others to lead, you're a follower and that's not a good place to be when it comes to air quality.

Abby: That's really important to say. Now what about here in California? I mean typically, folks look to California for the most progressive climate solutions and climate actions. Is this where we're seeing a lot of movement on electric buses?

Jimmy: Yeah. Within the U.S., California is absolutely a leader. There's over 100 electric buses already on the road today in California and we've had leadership from transit agencies going back to the early 2000s. Just here in Oakland, our local transit agency, AC Transit, has been operating hydrogen fuel cell buses since 2005 and these buses are great when they drive by and you're standing on a corner. You don't smell them. They're quiet. They're really enjoyable to ride. So California has certainly been a leader. The state is on its way to transitioning to all zero emission bus fleet by 2040. There's a vote on this at the Air Resources Board coming up in September and this will further solidify, if it passes, California's leadership in this area.

Abby: And if it passes, then that could be an example for other states possibly to follow.

Jimmy: Absolutely. And it sends a signal to the manufacturers that if you're making diesel or natural gas buses today, you need to start shifting your resources towards electric. And if you're a company that only makes electric buses, it indicates that you're gonna have business for the next, you know, at least in California in the foreseeable future.

Abby: One of the things I think that is so attractive to me about electric buses is that as...I'm someone who doesn't drive much, lives in an apartment, doesn't have a place to plug in an electric vehicle if I was gonna buy a new car. So riding an electric bus is a way that I can be part of this electric vehicle transformation.

Jimmy: Yeah. Electric buses are the people's electric vehicle for every reason you just said, that not everyone's out of place to be purchasing a brand new car, let alone a brand new electric car. And public transit is the people's vehicle and electric buses can be the people's electric vehicle. And as a rider, you benefit from the same benefits as a driver of an electric vehicle. It's a quiet ride. It's a really comfortable ride. You're not breathing in fumes from your own vehicle. So there's a huge benefit for everyone.

Abby: Well, I'm on board. So how do we get more of these electric buses in our local cities? What do we have to do? Who do we have to call and write to?

Jimmy: Yeah. So we need leaders of transit agencies to step up to the plate. This is what we've seen in Los Angeles, in Seattle, that their transit boards have made bold commitments and are leading the way. And so if you live in a city and your transit agency hasn't been doing something on this, show up to the next transit agency meeting. These are public agencies and they have public meetings and get up to the public comment period and make a two-minute statement saying your community deserves electric buses just as much as the next one. And a lot of the progress we've seen in communities that are making progress is because people have stepped up to the podium to make these asks of their elected leaders.

Abby: They're cleaner, they are better for the environment, they are better for the air we breathe. Now are they less expensive or are they more expensive?

Jimmy: Yeah. So the cost is always a question that comes up. And electric bus on the total cost of ownership basis is cost competitive if not cheaper than a diesel or natural gas bus. And so there's a lot of caveats too depending on your electricity rate for where you are and how many miles the bus drives and what the route is and these sorts of things that make the cost calculations different for every transit agency and whatnot. But the total cost of ownership which is really the bottom line is looking pretty favorable for electric buses today and we've seen trends that electric vehicles as a whole are getting much cheaper every year with declining battery costs. And so while the purchase price of an electric bus is still higher than a diesel or natural gas bus, the total cost of ownership is there if not better.

Abby: And overtime, that they should be getting cheaper to purchase and cheaper to operate them as it's cheaper to fuel them with electricity that's coming from renewable sources.

Jimmy: Exactly. So electricity, you know, there's certain things that utilities need to also start thinking about these large electric vehicles coming on to their grid and they haven't traditionally designed electricity rates with these vehicles in mind. So just like many utilities are offering electricity rates for electric cars specific to those vehicles, we need to see that for heavy-duty electric vehicles to account for something that the transit agency or the utilities didn't have on their radar when those rates were designed.

Abby: Well, this sounds pretty intense but exciting and I'm glad to know that people like you are working on this really important issue. So one more question Jimmy just to wrap it up. Have you ridden an electric bus before?

Jimmy: Yeah.

Abby: What was it like?

Jimmy: I have. I've logged actually over a hundred miles on an electric bus. They’re incredibly fun to ride. I was lucky enough I got to take one from the downtown LA area out to Lancaster, California as part of a tour and got to ride this bus through LA traffic. We started near the beach and got on the highway and, of course, famous LA traffic, stop and go highway, and then up over a fairly decent highway grade, passed a couple diesel trucks up the grade.

Abby: You were going faster than the trucks?

Jimmy: Faster than the tracks. And this is always like a myth that people have. Oh, electric vehicles can't perform or what not. It's totally the opposite. Electric vehicles have advantages over diesel and natural gas in terms of acceleration and whatnot. So the bus, we drove 75 miles one-way. The bus charged while we did this tour and then it drove back another 75 miles. And so the bus itself...it started at the factory and drove home. So it had done 300 miles in one day itself. It charged only during the tour which was maybe three hours total and it was a quiet ride. We could have conversation the whole time and totally enjoyable. You don’t get the fumes when you’re sitting in the back of the bus coming in, when the doors are open. When you’re standing on the corner and one of these buses roll pass, whether you’re waiting for the bus, crossing the street, or on your bicycle, you don’t get those tailpipe emissions that really clog up roadways. The more of these we can get on the road the better for sure and we’re seeing a lot of progress in that direction. Totally enjoyable.

Abby: So 100 miles that was good for you, good for the air, and good for the environment.

Jimmy: Exactly.

Abby: It sounds terrific. Well, thank you so much, Jimmy.

Jimmy: You're welcome Abby. Absolutely.

Abby: Yeah. It's back to you, Colleen.

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Credits: 

This Week in Science History: Katy Love
Editing: Omari Spears
Music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald