Apr 24, 2023 - Climate

It will be nearly impossible for CATS to only run electric buses by 2030

bus buses Charlotte Transportation CATS electric

Photo courtesy CATS bus buses Charlotte Transportation CATS electric

The City of Charlotte’s vehicle fleet includes more than 300 buses it wants to transition to all-electric within seven years. Today, CATS’ fleet includes just 18 battery electric buses.

Why it matters: In 2018, as part of the Strategic Energy Action Plan, the city set an ambitious goal to fuel all its vehicles with 100% zero-carbon sources by 2030. But it isn’t on track to meet that goal.

  •  CATS leadership doesn’t want to risk the struggling transit agency’s reliability or reputation anymore by purchasing electric buses without sufficient EV charging infrastructure around Charlotte. But that means deprioritizing public health and environmental concerns.
  • Plus, the transit agency needs to replace about a third of its aging buses before they break down. The transit agency is in near shambles, largely due to deferred maintenance.

The latest: CATS is purchasing 15 more battery electric buses, bringing the total number to 33. But along with that acquisition, it is also buying 15 diesel-electric hybrid buses.

  • It doesn’t have enough chargers to support much more than 33 battery electric buses, interim CEO Brent Cagle told council in February. With 20 ports taking six hours to charge one bus each, the city should be able to charge 40 buses in 12 hours.
  • Plus, the upfront cost of a battery electric bus is expensive compared to a full-diesel bus.

Of note: The city has 90 EVs in its fleet, not including what it has on order, which is just 2% of its 4,351-vehicle fleet, as Axios’ Danielle Chemtob reported. Although the city wants to transition its entire fleet, it only recently acquired its first electric fire truck.

Buses stay in service for 12 years, meaning these newly purchased hybrids will be in operation until at least 2035 if they were received now — five years after the 2030 goal.

  • While replacing diesel buses with hybrids is still a step toward cleaner air, some council members were hesitant to approve the recent purchase. It passed in a split vote, only after the mayor was forced the break the tie.
  • “We’ve got to address the reliability, but we also know that we cannot jeopardize (public) health at the same time,” council member Dimple Ajmera tells Axios.

What they’re saying: “I do believe that CATS and the city are still committed to (SEAP),” says Shannon Binns, director of Sustain Charlotte. “But it is disappointing that we haven’t moved fast enough since setting that goal.”

  • Binns would rather CATS “be honest about the year” it can transition to all electric, he says.

Between the lines: CATS could retire its 15 hybrid buses before 2030, but the Federal Transit Administration may issue a financial penalty.

  • There may be grant opportunities to help retire the hybrid buses early, Ajmera says.

By the numbers: Electric buses are double the price of diesels. Battery electric buses cost $1.2 million each, hybrids are $900,000 and diesel are $600,000, according to CATS. Of 304 CATS buses, 66 are hybrids.

  • But the maintenance and power for battery electric buses are expected to cost less in the long run, CATS sustainability officer Catherine Kummer tells me.
  • “We’re lucky being in the state of North Carolina. Our energy costs are some of the lowest in the country,” she adds.

Flashback: A year ago, on Earth Day, the city launched an 18-month pilot program to test 18 battery electric buses from two manufacturers: New Flyer and Gillig. The goal of the pilot is to determine what it will take to transition the entire fleet to zero emissions.

  • The program started in historically underserved Charlotte neighborhoods that the city is investing in, known as the Corridors of Opportunity. In communities of color, residents are more likely to rely on public transit and fuels affect their air quality. The pilot has since expanded systemwide.

Yes, but: The launch of the pilot in 2022 was already years after the SEAP goal was set, putting the city behind on its progress toward its 2030 goal.

  • “My customers suffered because I got old buses out there,” Lewis says. “There isn’t enough capacity in the United States to meet the need.”
  • Sustainability advocate Binns says CATS’ hesitancy to embrace the SEAP goals “put us behind the eight ball.”

“There was some uncertainty in the technology,” Kummer says. “Being able to walk away right now and say that we tested it, and it does work — that’s the key takeaway.”

What’s next: Since January, consulting company STV has been researching what CATS needs to do to support a fully electric fleet. It will finalize a plan in October.

  • The results will include details on how many chargers CATS needs and how long the transition to all-electric will realistically take.

So far, CATS has learned that electric buses can service 70% and cannot service 30% of its routes because they can only go up to a certain mileage. But battery technology is advancing, Kummer tells me.

  • “We are hopeful that between now and the next several years, we’ll get to a place where the buses can satisfy 100% of the routes,” she says.

Zoom in: The city’s central bus hub, the Charlotte Transportation Center, will be rebuilt underground by 2028. Members of CATS policy board and city council agreed to the below-ground design with the understanding that diesel vehicles would not enter and threaten the air quality.

  • The new hybrid buses that CATS is purchasing from Gillig will be able to run fully electric when entering the CTC.
  • Sustain Charlotte and other environmental advocates penned a letter to the city asking for a plan to guarantee future CTC “bus riders and operators breathe air that consistently meets or exceeds federal standards for indoor air quality and is as good or better than the air quality at the light rail station two stories above.”

The bottom line: Despite signs that its goals are near impossible, the city isn’t wavering from the 2030 deadline.

  • “We’re going to strive to do everything in our power to make sure we’re transitioning to zero emissions,” Kummer says.

“We need to continue to be bold and continue to challenge our staff where we can meet those goals,” Ajmera says. “I don’t think we need to go back on our promises that we made to our residents.”

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