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Capital Metro talks batteries over electric bus contract

Tuesday, August 27, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

The Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority is pressing on with its fleet electrification plan despite a number of kinks yet to be fully ironed out.

After the agency’s board of directors approved a contract with New Flyer of America on Monday for purchase of six electric buses, Dottie Watkins, vice president of bus operations and maintenance, said that, for a few reasons, it may be a number of years before the new buses are fully up to speed.

With range being a top consideration for transit vehicles, Watkins said the agency is “not quite there on battery-electric buses.”

While the six New Flyer buses have a range of 120-150 miles per charge – sufficient for about 40 percent of the agency’s routes – the agency’s longest routes currently span around 275 miles over the course of a day. Watkins said electric buses with larger batteries coming out in the next couple of years should have a range closer to 200 miles, but that would still only cover up to 75 percent of the routes.

“If the technology doesn’t advance beyond what we know is coming in the next couple of years, we’re going to have range limitation issues,” Watkins said.

The agency is looking at a few possibilities to solve that problem, from costly on-route charging infrastructure commonly used in Europe and Asia to buses equipped with innovative hydrogen fuel cells that provide extra energy, also relatively expensive.

If those technologies and costs are not within reach in the next 10 years, another option would be to use two electric buses for the longer routes now served by a single diesel bus. However, with maintenance and operations facilities already near capacity, that option brings its own challenges.

“We are a rapidly growing community … and we can handle 25 more buses,” said CEO Randy Clarke. Even if Project Connect doesn’t happen, he said, “not only will we not meet the needs of our community, (but) we have no facility space to barely do any incremental growth either.”

Capital Metro began construction earlier this year on an electric bus yard and charging facility adjacent to its North Ops facility. When it’s finished, the yard will have room to accommodate up to 214 electric buses.

Even so, Watkins said there is reason to be optimistic: “Battery technology itself is increasing and improving by leaps and bounds and we’ve seen a drastic improvement in the ability to have more dense, better battery storage on battery electric buses as the consumer vehicle market continues to evolve.”

The $8.2 million contract includes four 40-foot buses and two 60-foot articulated, or “accordion” buses like those of the MetroRapid fleet. Together with the four Proterra buses purchased in April, the buses will complete the agency’s initial phase of fleet electrification.

Watkins said the agency chose New Flyer for this contract mostly because of the 60-foot bus option, which Proterra doesn’t offer. Additionally, she said, the ability to test both the Proterra and the New Flyer vehicles over the next couple of years will help inform decisions on larger contracts in the future.

The first two electric Proterra buses will arrive in December followed by the other two in June or July 2020. The six New Flyer buses are expected to arrive sometime in summer 2020.

The contract is partially funded by a $2.6 million federal “Low-No” (low or no emission) electric bus grant as well as $1.5 million in Clean Fleet Grants from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

The board unanimously approved the contract 7-0 with Chair Wade Cooper absent.

Photo courtesy of Capital Metro.

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