Halifax’s first electric buses won’t hit the road as soon as planned, but don’t blame your local city councillor or the leadership at Halifax Transit for the delay. Blame Doug Ford.

Among Ford’s many post-election climate change policy reversals was the cancellation of two funding contributions to electric bus pilot projects in York Region and Brampton. The two transit agencies had completed the technical and planning prep, and were all set to purchase 14 electric buses and five chargers last fall, until Ford killed part of their funding, leaving them in the lurch.

So how does an Ontario budgetary rug-pull affect the timing of electric buses hitting Halifax streets? Well, those bus pilots were part of Phase I of the Pan-Canadian Electric Bus Demonstration and Integration Trial, which was delayed while York, Brampton, and the project’s not-for-profit lead, the Canadian Urban Transit Research and Innovation Consortium (CUTRIC), scrambled to fill the last-minute funding gap. That in turn meant delays for Phase II of the national project, which is where Halifax comes in.

Halifax has volunteered to be a part of Phase II of CUTRIC’s national bus trial. If all goes tickety-boo, this fall Halifax will commit to acquiring eight electric buses plus one or two chargers, and put the system to work on pre-planned routes, all the while collecting real-time data on performance to be shared across the country via CUTRIC.

Can we actually afford this?

If you are skeptical that in these seemingly budget-strapped times Halifax will be able to fund electric buses, don’t be. CUTRIC is asking transit agencies to contribute only the cost of replacing diesel buses, which is something they do anyway on a regular basis. So there’s very little reason why Halifax wouldn’t participate in this pilot.

In fact, based on the cost-sharing design of the CUTRIC trials, Halifax Transit could fund its participation out of its conventional bus replacement budget line, since electric buses will be put to work servicing conventional bus routes.

Last year Halifax Transit spent about $16 million on 29 replacement diesel buses, and this fiscal year it spent $9 million on another 15, all just to replace older vehicles in its fleet. (Another 18 buses were added over those two years to grow the fleet.)

If Halifax Transit ponies up its usual amount for eight diesel replacements, that still leaves a funding gap. Diesel buses cost in the $550,000 to $600,000 range, while battery electric buses currently cost about $1 million. The balance of the costs for the CUTRIC trial (the remaining portion of the bus purchases plus the costs of the chargers, which also go for a million or so dollars) is to come from federal and provincial cost sharing, and in some cases contributions from the electrical utilities who stand to benefit from the extra business.

Nova Scotia Power appears copacetic. In a letter of support for the project dated January 2018, Shawn Connell, director of customer solutions with NSP wrote that the private utility, “will contribute project resources; either in the form of a monetary contribution or expert knowledge on the electrical system and potential impacts of a pilot project.”

CUTRIC has been lobbying the federal government, provincial governments, and utilities to help fund Phase I of the trial. (The Consortium is now working on the federal government to help Brampton and York follow through with their trials, in the wake of Ontario’s withdrawal.)

CUTRIC total investment in the Pan-Canadian Electric Bus Demonstration and Integration Trial, before the newly-elected Ford government in Ontario pulled out $16.4 million in funding representing 41% of the total project.

CUTRIC executive director Josipa Petrunic says the organization has yet to begin convincing Nova Scotia to commit to Phase II, but will do so as soon as it has a political commitment from Halifax. Nova Scotia’s Department of Energy did contribute a letter of support to the project in February of last year, but without a specific financial commitment. Buy-in from multiple levels of government are key, says Petrunic. “If we wait for cities to have enough money to adopt high end technology, we’re going to be waiting forever.”

But she’s hopeful. “There is a kickstart in funding,” says Petrunic. “There is some money there, several million, that has been approved. But we can’t discuss it until the other levels of government come to the table and it’s made public.”

Petrunic says CUTRIC will finish the technical design for Phase II of the project over the next few months, and look for a commitment from Halifax and other funding partners by September or October. The procurement process would start in December 2019 or January 2020. And since there’s a 10-12 month turnaround on bus procurement, the earliest Halifax’s new electric buses could make it to the streets would be the end of 2020. “That would be optimal,” says Petrunic.

Why CUTRIC?

Other cities in Canada (and plenty more in the US) are already dabbling in electric buses, without CUTRIC. Winnipeg has had four electric buses running for years now in its pilot. Montreal and Laval have just co-purchased 40 electric buses, and of those Laval will put 10 to work on a fully electric route in 2020, with plans to purchase only electric buses starting in 2023.

So why is Halifax taking its sweet time and waiting on CUTRIC? For a small system like Halifax, it’s not just about the funding help, it’s about the technology.

Over the past decade or so, as new tech companies like California’s Proterra and existing bus manufacturers like New Flyer and Nova have been working to develop their own electric buses, the market has been filling with proprietary systems — buses designed to use specific charging technology. And because chargers come at a significant cost to each system, transit agencies who go electric are essentially having to marry into a manufacturing family, which makes pilot projects a lot riskier.

“Any taxpayer in any city will tell you those kinds of monopolistic scenarios are not good,” says Petrunic. “It locks the city into one type of technology solution which means you are beholden to that manufacturer.”

(Unless, of course, you are Toronto, which has announced the procurement of 60 battery electric buses from three different companies, using three different charging systems. Maybe when you are the TTC, you can afford to experiment.)

But for smaller systems, proprietary charging technology just does not make sense. That’s why, explains Petrunic, “the whole basis of the project that CUTRIC is running is standardization.”

CUTRIC is working with Canadian manufacturers Nova Bus and New Flyer, charger manufacturers ABB and Siemens, and California-based electric bus manufacturer Proterra. “All of them have agreed to work with us in these multiple cities to deliver buses with interoperable charging systems,” says Petrunic, so transit agencies can “plug and play.”

Basically, CUTRIC is helping foster the USB of electric bus charging systems, so that transit agencies will have some flexibility and control over who supplies their buses into the future.

And unlike some electric bus pilots, the CUTRIC project is also long term. “They’re not here today, gone tomorrow,” says Petrunic. “The charging systems are purchased as part of a permanent fleet. They will be installed and will live out their 20-year life cycle.”

Why electric?

This is all fine and good, but isn’t this whole electric bus thing just an impractical, science fiction fantasy that only the wealthiest cities of Europe and Asia can afford to dabble in? Not to put too fine a point on it, but: No. Electric buses are not so much a fantasy as they are an imminent inevitability.

“Diesel is dying,” says Petrunic. “From an industrial standpoint, every manufacturer is talking about electrification and changing their manufacturing to electrification. We might not see it right away because buses have 12- to 18-year life cycles, so there’s a lot of buses out there that need to live it out five, 10 more years because the city spent money on them.” But, she says, “if we read the tea leaves of industry, it’s going that way even though citizens might not realize it when they’re getting on their clunky old diesel buses still.”

Electricity, it turns out, is great at moving things around. “If you look at the physics of it,” says Petrunic, “gasoline and diesel produce heat very well. They don’t produce propulsion that well. Electricity is the exact opposite. Electricity is not that great at creating heat, but electricity is perfect for propulsion.”

The helps explain why the cost of operating electric buses is a fraction of the cost of operating diesel buses. First off, there’s the fuel savings. The city of St Albert estimates its electric buses cost approximately $0.09 per kilometer for fuel. Its diesel buses cost approximately $0.45 per kilometer.

Then there are the maintenance costs. Electric buses are easier on brakes, and eliminate the need for exhaust systems, transmissions, and oil changes, among other things. Of course, there are some new or additional costs that come with electrics buses, such as more expensive steering systems and, of course, all that electrical maintenance.

In its report for Halifax Transit submitted in December 2017, WSP estimated that an electric bus fleet would save Halifax Transit between $127 million to $163 million over the next 20 years (not including any future carbon tax or cap and trade savings) depending on how quickly the city made the switch. Because of projected price drops as electric buses become more common, WSP predicts Halifax Transit will actually save more by taking it slowly, though that’s without considering imminent changes to the carbon-subsidized economy. It also precludes multi-level government support, which seems key, at least in the short term. Under the CUTRIC funding model, for example, Halifax Transit sees all the cost savings from going electric without incurring any of the added expense.

That’s a solid enough argument to go electric for me, but there’s more. Going electric helps eliminate globally disastrous greenhouse gas emissions (approximately 53 to 63 tonnes per year per bus, based on Nova Scotia Power’s current energy mix), as well as locally noxious diesel fumes and noise pollution.

A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists compared the GHG emissions from various types of transit based on the current US average grid mix of energy sources.

Here’s the summary of the WSP findings in a Halifax Transit report to council from March 6, 2018.

Per the study, the major tangible benefits of adopting BEB [battery electric bus] technology are:

  • Reduced maintenance and operating costs resulting in savings of approximately $127 Million to $163 Million over 20 years (no carbon tax savings nor potential benefits of a Cap and Trade program are included). Savings are based on current operating and fuel costs as well as a full fleet implementation.
  • Reduce annual lifecycle costs by approximately $10,500 per bus (10% decrease)
  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions over 20 years by approximately 66,000 tonnes for slow adoption of BEBs (50% of every new bus purchase is electric)
  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions over 20 years by approximately 131,000 tonnes for full adoption of BEBs (if every new bus purchase is electric)
  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 53 to 63 tonnes per year per bus
  • Reduce noise pollution

But wait, it gets better.

Electric buses are a developing technology, and the CUTRIC pilot is attempting to direct that technological development in a direction that makes sense for transit agencies. The Phase I trial (of which Vancouver, and eventually Brampton and York, will partake) included standardized charging technology for standard 40-foot buses, all taking a charge of 450 kilowatts. Phase II will expand to include 60-foot buses, and the potential for buses to take up to 600 kilowatts in charge, something which may or may not be necessary for Halifax.

The pièce de resistance for Phase II is the testing of energy storage systems to accompany chargers, to help cut down on energy costs. Chargers could have their own battery packs that can trickle charge overnight, and then dump a large amount of charge into a bus when it needs it at midday. Since electricity costs more if you need a lot of it at once — like when you are charging a bus in a hurry — this storage solution could further reduce costs of operating electric buses. It could also provide resilience to eventualities like power outages.

Image from CUTRIC 2018 annual report presentation

How will it work?

The tech being supported in the CUTRIC trial is fast-charging battery technology, where buses are able to recharge during their service day, in as little as a few minutes, with chargers located at terminals. It’s a little early to say which route will be the testing ground in Halifax, and so which terminals would need charging stations.  A CUTRIC presentation from the June 2018 showed route 80 as a candidate. The WSP study submitted in December 2017 looked at different combinations of six possible routes, the 80, 87, 59, 72, 41 and 60.

In the Vancouver CUTRIC project, which starts running this year, there are four electric buses taking on a route (the route 100 along Marine Drive, for those in the know) and has four buses taking on a single 15 km long route, with chargers at either end of the route. It’s expected the chargers would take 4-7 minutes to fully charge the buses.

In terms of selecting which route to start with, Petrunic recommends going with the fuel-intensive routes, because that’s where the major savings in electrification comes in. Petrunic is also a proponent of going with at least eight buses for a trial, so that chargers are more fully utilized. The details of the Halifax project would presumably be available by the time a political commitment is required in the fall.

So, will we do it?

The big question is, will Halifax Transit recommend in favour of formally committing to the CUTRIC pilot this fall, when push comes to shove?

That’s a difficult question to answer, partly because it’s very difficult to get a city staffer who is actually involved to talk about this project.  The official line via the city’s communications department is it depends on council and what decisions they make about the city’s capital spending.

There is, or was, an “electric bus pilot” line in Halifax’s capital budget last year, though it’s nowhere to be found in the proposed budget council started to discuss last week.

City communications officer Brendan Elliott confirmed that despite the fact that it appears nowhere in this year’s proposed capital budget, there is still $1.25 million sitting in an account, approved for spending on an electric bus pilot ($1 million came from city coffers, and $250,000 from federal funding). I’ve got a question in to Elliott about why this number doesn’t appear in the current proposed multi-year budget, and will update this story as soon as I get the explanation.

Trouble is, that $1.25 million is not enough to cover our share of the CUTRIC pilot, which would be around $5 million (based on eight buses at the cost of diesels). Which brings me to the other question I’m waiting to hear back on: why would we need an electric bus pilot budget line at all, if Halifax Transit can simply fund its participation in this pilot from its existing capital budget envelopes? We’ve already seen how the design of the CUTRIC project really only requires transit agencies to commit what they would normally spend on replacement diesel buses. So theoretically, Halifax Transit director Dave Reage could just propose participation in the CUTRIC trial along with his usual request for capital funding. Again, I will fill you in, dear Examiner reader, as soon as I get the explanation.

By all indications, Reage is supportive of this CUTRIC project.  He said so himself in a letter of support to Natural Resources Canada, one of CUTRIC’s federal funding agencies, dated January of 2018:

As part of this trial, Halifax Transit is committed to delivering the following investments in cash and in kind, subject to approval from Halifax Regional Council:

  1. A commitment of up to $500,000 CAD for each electric bus procured for this trial in Halifax. Halifax Transit expects to invest in 8 electric buses, contingent on supplementary funding for the purposes of this trial, with delivery of those vehicles scheduled for 2019.

Petrunic told me she found the leadership in Halifax to be “very dynamic” and “open-minded.”  So it seems that we may be poised for a “yes” to the CUTRIC pilot in September. And it seems that the only reason we won’t see delivery of new battery electric buses by the end of this year, as Reage predicted in his letter, is, like I said, Doug Ford and the Ontario voters that elected him.

Petrunic, whose academic background is in political science and public policy as well as science and technology, is resigned to the precarious nature of public funding, even when her own project is at risk. “When you’re trying to do good technology innovation,” says Petrunic, “you just have to deal with the fact that politics doesn’t always align with the fact that the technology is ready to go and the city needs it.”

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  1. That’s what I was wondering too, because the sources of electricity here are dirty, not clean. I’d be for them if the electricity they were using was solar, or we’d have many of the same problems. Plus, as stated above, where these buses could go would be limited, how could we address that?

    1. I’ve been convinced by the argument that we should go electric with everything asap, even given that coal is still burned in places like Nova Scotia. You can’t switch to electric overnight, so you make the switch as soon as you can, and we work on the power plants all the while. If we wait the 20 years (or whatever) for the coal plants to be replaced and *then* start the transition to electric, we’re going to be that much further behind the curve.

      1. I am personally more concerned with energy security than climate change – climate change will be bad, but if we cannot power our infrastructure we are in for a world of hurt. For instance, China’s incredible progress with renewables can be explained by the fact that China has no oil and rapidly dwindling coal reserves, and the fact that the Chinese leadership is smart and does not hate Chinese people (very different than Western governance).

        I think the focus on climate change rather than resource depletion is interesting – we can’t admit that we might be running out of magic dino goo, but we are comfortable with the idea that we are so powerful we are trashing the planet and need to shape up. This is sort of silly – a three year old can understand that if you are using up something which isn’t made anymore, you will run out. Whereas the whole concept of climate change is incredibly complicated in comparison.

      2. Right on, Tim. But we can’t descend further back into the coal age to generate the electricity. Emphasis has to be put on both at the same time! For the solar age we are pretty far behind already…

    1. Thanks, Joy. Power sources were outside the scope of this piece, but it would be worth looking into. I often wonder how the Solar City program is doing, esp now that there are rebates available from the province. Also, I wonder if there are guidelines for city buildings. Worth looking into!

    1. I have to agree – it is harder, and for some routes it will never work, but it would be so cool to have streetcars on the old routes and some new ones. Tourists and bargoers would love them. Batteries aren’t cheap or environmentally friendly, and energy is lost charging and discharging the batteries.

      I worry about the vendor lock in issue with charging as well.

      1. Re: vendor lock-in: as I mentioned in the piece, the system Halifax is considering has a standardized charging system orchestrated by CUTRIC, involving several different manufacturers. So I’d say vendor lock-in is mostly avoided.

        1. Oh – that’s what I get for reading this on my phone in the checkout at the grocery store.

          Well that’s good.

          1. It was also a really good article – now that I’ve read it at home, on my computer I really think I learned a lot.

    2. Interesting article, but I don’t see why en route charging is a deal breaker. This writer cites the Vancouver CUTRIC trial as evidence that BEBs do not work, simply because it includes en route chargers. Huh? En route fast-charging expands the daily range of BEBs. There are issues with some slow charge buses (designed to operated on a single overnight charge) but the small city of St Albert has had success with them. They would not work for the full system in Halifax, as it’s too big.
      Also, Winnipeg has had battery electric buses for years, and does cold weather testing on them. Seems like manufacturers like New Flyer and Nova would pay special attention to cold weather performance, considering their markets.
      Another point re: this article: there’s a big difference between replacing electric trolley bus infrastructure with BEBs, and replacing a fully diesel fleet with BEBs. I mean, I agree, why replace electric with electric? There’s certainly no fuel savings or climate change argument…
      I would like to look into the cost of new trolley cable infrastructure, but I have a hard time believing that 15 kms of overhead wiring wouldn’t cost more than a couple of rapid charging stations, which is about $2 million. But I can’t say for sure…. I will make a note of it for the next electric bus story!

      1. Trolley buses have the benefit of being a proven, known technology – Halifax, Toronto, and many other cities had them decades ago, and Vancouver never stopped using them. Given that they do not have batteries, I assume the buses are cheaper, and possibly lighter (thus using less energy), and they do not have the environmental challenges of large batteries. There is the challenge that cables determine your route possibilities, but putting up cables along the main streets might encourage more sensible routing. I suspect the biggest problem with trolley buses is that they are not considered innovative, and the overhead cables are considered unattractive.

    3. It seems to me overhead infrastructure would tie us to certain routes too much. Imagine the added difficulty of switching some routes off of streets such as Gottingen or Spring Garden if that involved adding or moving overhead cables. And what about snow-routes? We would need cables along any bypass routes when buses can’t make it up some steep hills. Same issue regarding detours due to accidents or road maintenance. Charging stations at terminals sound much more flexible to me.