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Missing the bus: Halifax Transit sticks with diesel while PEI buys all-electric school buses

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – In 2019 the City of Halifax made two radically different proclamations, so diametrically opposed to one another that, in the eyes of many, each disqualified the other. First, the city declared a climate emergency, joining the vanguard of Canadian municipalities recognizing the dire state of atmospheric chemistry and the urgent need to correct it, and second, they committed to buying upwards of 150 diesel buses from then until 2023, ensuring that all additions to their transit fleet for years to come would be patrons of fossil fuels.

In 2020, however, the provincial government of PEI made a very different pair of announcements – that their entire fleet of 220 school buses would be electrified by 2040 or sooner, and that, without preamble, they’d gone ahead and purchased their first twelve all-electrics.

In a country where transportation makes up a significant portion of overall greenhouse gas emissions, and in an age of catastrophic climatic change where every year of action, or inaction, has far reaching consequences, these decisions are worth evaluating. Why did two separate governments facing similar situations arrive at two very different approaches, and what happens next?

The first dozen

Progressive Conservative Steven Myers, PEI’s Minister of Transportation, is emphatically in favour of electrifying transportation from tip to tip of his tiny province, a distance he drove only recently in an electric car. The 255 kilometre drive cost $7.

“That’s a pretty paltry amount of money to drive from North Cape to East Point,” said Myers.

His government’s decision to purchase twelve all-electric school buses became public on November 9th, 2020, in a press release acknowledging the total price of the project ($4.8 million), and the financial support of the federal government ($2.1 million). All twelve will come from the Quebec based Lion Electric, whose manufacturing plant Steven has visited. He’s even taken one for a test drive, describing the machine as impressive, smooth and quiet.

His government has set an ambitious goal for their fleet, and he said that, when their first twelve electric buses arrive in early 2021, there will be a great many challenges, such as the installation and careful distribution of charging stations, and squaring the range of these vehicles with school routes, but he also acknowledges the urgency.

“We’re going to be aggressive and we have to be, because we’ve set an aggressive target,” he said. “We know we have to make a move on electrification of transportation on PEI. It’s our number one emitter.”

While the Progressive Conservative government of Prince Edward Island has, in fact, set some of the most aggressive carbon reduction targets in the country (net-zero electrical grid by 2030 and a net-zero province, transport included, by 2040), their approach has not been without criticism. Green Party member Stephen Howard, transportation critic with the official opposition, notes the lack of detail in the province’s plans for 2030 and 2040. Goals are all well and good, he said, and these twelve buses are an important step, but they are no substitute for a concrete plan for success.

All the same, rubber has met the road on PEI.

Halifax’s public transit fleet numbers 350 buses and functions in a fundamentally more chaotic environment than PEI can muster, but the city has nevertheless flirted with electric buses. As recently as 2017, an electric transit pilot program, involving two buses, was being actively considered by the municipality and was even budgeted at one time, but never actually happened. And then, of course, there was the tender awarded to Nova Bus in November of 2020, committing the city to purchase its next 150 buses from this Quebec manufacturer, all diesel, from now until 2023.

“Making the changeover to electric buses will take time as it requires the modification of transit depots to accommodate electric charging,” said Erin Dicarlo, public affairs advisor with the municipality. “Halifax Transit cannot procure buses without first having the necessary infrastructure and training in place beforehand.”

She didn’t say why this infrastructure wasn’t put in place ahead of 2020, or if it was presently being installed in preparation for 2023, the earliest date she expects electric buses could be added to the fleet. She did say a separate tender for electric buses before 2023 was possible, but not presently being discussed.

There is, however, the city’s 2020 Electric Bus Proposal, which would add over 200 electric buses to Halifax’s transit fleet by 2028 along with necessary charging infrastructure. This proposal has been approved by the municipality, but will ultimately depend on funding partnerships with the provincial and federal governments.

Nuts and bolts and lithium ion

Lion Electric decided to manufacture 100 per cent electric school buses way back in 2011, long before provincial or federal subsidies. Their first model, the Lion C, hit the market in 2016, 300 of which now serve in Massachusetts, California, New York, Indiana, Tennessee, Michigan, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and, very soon, PEI. To date, these buses have driven over 10 million cumulative kilometres.

And Lion Electric is growing, presently building its own lithium ion manufacturing plant next to its Quebec headquarters and planning significant expansions to its bus manufacturing capacity by 2023.

Patrick Gervais, vice president of marketing and communications for Lion Electric, said their Lion C school buses (the same model purchased by PEI) have a range of 250 kilometres per charge and costs roughly twice as much as your standard school bus. They make up for their upfront cost in lifetime savings, however. Conservative estimates are that a Lion C all electric bus is 80 per cent cheaper to “fuel” and at least 65 per cent cheaper to maintain, and while their oldest models have only been on the road since 2016, Patrick has every reason to expect they will have superior lifespans. Their composite bodies have no paint and cannot rust, there’s no transmission to speak of and their electric engines are very simple, requiring no fluids and consisting of 20 parts, only three of which actually move. By comparison, the engine of your standard school bus has 3,000 parts.

“[Our engines are] never going to break,” said Patrick. These features, among others, have combined savings of as much as $25,000 a year, per bus. Lifetime savings for an all electric bus over diesel, he said, is around $70-$200 thousand.

But even now, many jurisdictions, including the federal government, offer considerable financial support for the purchase of electric vehicles, so even the upfront costs of going electric can be managed by municipalities. What’s more, the cost of electric vehicles everywhere is dropping as lithium ion batteries become more affordable, and as companies like Lion Electric expand manufacturing capacity. In 5-6 years, Patrick expects their school buses to be the same price as standard diesel, upfront, without subsidies. They also save something like 23 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per bus, per year.

As for charging infrastructure, their electric buses support standard level 2 and level 3 charging stations, depending on how quickly they need to be gotten back on the road. Lion Electric goes so far as to help plan the installation of this infrastructure for its customers, and has services which will teach the proper maintenance and operation of their buses.

“It’s not complicated to do,” he said, “but it’s change.”

Public transit buses, however, are at least a bit more complicated than school buses, and Lion Electric doesn’t build transit. The two major manufacturers of electric transit buses in Canada are New Flyer, active across much of the continent, and Nova Bus, from whom Halifax will secure as many as 150 diesel buses by 2023. According to Nova Bus, charging infrastructure for electric transit buses is no joke.

“Replacing a diesel bus with an electric one requires a complete system change,” said a company representative. “Charging infrastructure, electric ready bus depots and facility overhauls, new data and IT systems, and backup power and energy management systems are among the many needs transit agencies must meet to ensure success.”

Instead of level 2 and 3 charging stations, transit buses need to be able to charge overnight at depots, but also on the go, using an overhead charging apparatus which the bus parks underneath while driving its route, perhaps at places like Halifax’s Mumford Terminal. These are not small investments.

But with these investments comes substantial reductions in bus ownership costs, carbon emissions and also air and noise pollution, Nova Bus points out, and like all electric vehicles, they expect their prices to drop with economies of scale. At present, Nova Bus manufactures two electric buses, the model LFSe and its predecessor, the LFSe+, whose range is 340 to 470 km per charge.

Wartime Speed

“We must move at wartime speed, restructuring the world energy economy at a pace reminiscent of the restructuring of the U.S. industrial economy in 1942 following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.”

That’s from Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, published in 2008 by environmental analyst Lester Brown. Frankly, I haven’t read much Brown, but I’ve read enough to know he’s fond of that phrase, “wartime speed,” when referencing the complete transformation of the world’s largest economy in a matter of months during WWII, and the potential for a similar shift in global energy production from fossil fuels to renewables today, or, rather, thirteen years ago.

Brown couldn’t have foreseen Covid-19, nor the novel feats of social and medical engineering which would rival even the wartime speed of old conflicts. But whether moving at wartime speed or pandemic speed, governments are capable of incredible pace when the existential threat at our door transcends the merely practical. And yet we haven’t seen wartime speed on climate change.

2020 was the hottest year on record, yet in that time, the largest city in Atlantic Canada was capable of deferring the adoption of electric buses by three more years. Searching for larger lessons in the tender of buses, my heart goes to PEI, not because theirs was the harder decision – it wasn’t – but for its clear evidence of ambition and urgency. Halifax’s deferral can certainly be explained in the contexts of municipal infrastructure and hard dollars, but perhaps not in the context of a climate emergency.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes.

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2 Comments

  1. Halifax Transit needs a garage and electrical infrastructure for a fleet of electric buses. Estimated cost is in excess of $400,000,000.
    Electric buses must be inside a heated garage. This issue has been explained to HRM Council several times, and finding a large piece of land for a giant garage and the power transformers is proving quite difficult.

    Reply
  2. Why a heated garage? Wouldn’t buses be plugged in overnight? & why not several garages? (some of which Hfx T already has?)
    What is your breakdown of that $400,000,000 cost?

    Thank you Advocate for this excellent article!

    Reply

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