Think electric vehicle and what comes to mind? A Tesla turning heads? A tiny Nissan Leaf? How about a municipal bus?
Nevada’s two big transit agencies provide a combined 75 million rides a year, and e-buses carry a small but growing percentage of those passengers.
MJ Maynard, CEO of the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada, said her agency put electric buses to the test last summer to see how well they held up in the Las Vegas heat.
She said the vehicles performed well, but the need to build out infrastructure and a desire for even more miles per charge puts widespread adoption five to 10 years off.
“The buses themselves performed well… the amount of miles that the bus could travel in between charging we knew that would be compromised because of the heat but while the buses only operated nine hours per day they were able to travel 120 miles in between charging,” she said.
Maynard said the RTC was concerned about the air conditioning being cool enough but riders reported a cool and quiet ride.
The transportation authority is now expanding its testing.
“The plan going forward we’re going to buy, with grant funding, two electric buses in 2020 because we’re doing our homework," Maynard said, "We want to make sure that we collect enough information about the battery, the range of the battery, the mechanical components of the vehicle and how they’re maintained. We have to understand the infrastructure. There is a lot to learn.”
David Carr, facilities and fleet manager for the Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County, said one-third of its 60 buses are already electric.
He said there is a lot to learn about running an electric fleet.
“Diesel buses are simple. You put fuel in them, you drive them around all day, you put them in the barn and you fill them up again. With electric buses, it is much more complicated,” he said.
For instance, the RTC in Washoe County found that electric rates vary depending on the time of day. They also found that how a bus is driven can impact the battery life. A more aggressive driver will use up more power compared to a driver who really knows how to handle the bus.
“There’s a lot of nuisance things that you can learn from operating an electric bus,” he said.
Maynard also pointed out that before the RTC in Southern Nevada moves entirely to an electric fleet they'll need to expand and upgrade their bus yards.
The electric capacity is not enough to charge the agency's 400 buses and it requires more physical space to charge a bus than it does to fuel it up with compressed natural gas, which is what most buses are being powered with now.
Carr agreed. His agency plans to purchase more electric buses but its not just the buses they'll have to pay for.
"The way we’ve oriented our chargers. The way we have purchased our electricity," he said, "We have really kind of lined things up to where we’re able to capture the most savings we can.”
Beyond infrastructure, efforts are underway by the bus manufacturers to improve battery life by making the buses lighter, reworking the powertrains and redesigning the wheels.
“The technology for the batteries in the last couple of years really improved but right now that’s kind of where it's at," Maynard said, "The range is what it is right now and I know the bus manufacturers are working on that.”
Of the 44,000 buses in service across America, only about 169 are electric, Maynard said. While it is an improvement, she said it shows the public transportation systems have a lot to learn about going electric.
MJ Maynard, CEO, Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada; David Carr, facilities and fleet manager, Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County