With more than 425,000 electric buses on the roads world-wide, four Canadian manufacturers with customers across the continent, and transit agencies in Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, and Laval adding the vehicles to their fleets, there’s still time for the country to hop onboard a growing international trend, Clean Energy Canada concludes in a report issued this week.
But with vehicle procurement cycles that run 12 to 18 years, and the federal government’s post-pandemic stimulus package still taking shape, it’ll take a deliberate effort to tap a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape our public transportation systems, making them both safer and less polluting,” the Vancouver-based think tank states.
“This pandemic has demonstrated how essential transit is to our cities, whether it’s helping essential workers get to their jobs or helping Canadians get to supermarkets or pharmacies. But this essential service is facing extreme challenges as efforts to contain the virus mean more people are working from home,” Clean Energy Canada adds, based on a survey of two dozen transit experts and stakeholders from across the country.
“Modernizing and electrifying bus fleets will help ensure Canadians continue to see transit as a clean, safe, and reliable way to get around. It will also support the hundreds of thousands of Canadians working in the public transportation sector and ensure our electric bus and battery manufacturers remain global leaders.”
While electric buses are still a rarity in Canada, the report points to signs of momentum: The federal government signed the International Drive to Zero pledge last year, then promised to get 5,000 zero-emission transit and school buses on the roads by 2025. Several transit agencies are acquiring electric buses and setting 2025 deadlines to stop buying diesel units. And “Brampton Transit is set to take centre stage with the largest global deployment of interoperable battery electric buses and high-powered overhead chargers.”
But the report cautions that “replacing a diesel bus with an electric one is not as simple as moving the playing pieces on a chess board”. Depots and facilities, operating models, software systems, and relationships with utilities must all adapt, and transit agencies will have to bring on new staff with different expertise. Clean Energy Canada points to six key elements of the challenge: costs and funding, the need for charging and other infrastructure, staff capacity and expertise, the role of local utilities, shifting technology options, and a lack of standardization in e-bus components and testing.
But flexible, predictable government incentives, sent directly to transit agencies or municipalities, can unlock local initiative in this area, the experts said. They cited battery leasing programs, bulk procurement, and codes and standards for electric bus technologies as measures that would reduce risk for transit agencies and drive down costs.
“While the arrival of the novel coronavirus has led to unprecedented times and challenges—including for transit agencies—we believe it’s vital we consider the long-term implications of the decisions we make in the coming months and years,” writes CEC Senior Policy Advisor Joanna Kyriazis. With the right investments in a resilient recovery, “electric buses can improve life for millions of Canadians, from the commuter who no longer breathes diesel fumes on the way into downtown, to the worker manufacturing Canada’s next generation of world-class electric buses, to the transit driver at the wheel of a quieter, more modern vehicle.”