Glam shot of a Proterra battery electric bus, like those being purchased en masse by Edmonton Transit (lead by former Halifax Transit head Eddie Robar)

City staff are “mothballing” an electric bus pilot project for which council had already approved $1 million in funding, in the process turning down another $2.25 million in federal funding secured to help fund the project, according to documents obtained under a Freedom of Information request.

An electric bus generates about 62 fewer tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions each year compared to a diesel bus, according to a 2017 WSP study co-commissioned by Halifax Transit and Nova Scotia Power. Electric buses also cost less to operate, significantly so. The City of St Albert has been operating slow-charge electric buses since August 2017, and it spends on average $0.09 per kilometre on electric buses, compared to $0.45 per kilometre on fuel for their diesel buses.

The Halifax-focussed WSP study doesn’t break down per-kilometre fuel costs, but rather calculates a total lifecycle savings. Despite the much higher upfront cost of battery-electric buses (roughly twice the price of diesel at the moment) WSP estimated that if Halifax Transit started making half its replacement bus purchases electric, the city would save $162 million over the next 20 years.

And that’s without calculating diesel cost increases expected due to Nova Scotia’s cap and trade program, or any future carbon taxes. The study also did not consider the upfront capital funding opportunities available right now for transit electrification projects, which significantly lower the costs for electric buses.

Despite this, transit director Dave Reage wrote in internal emails, “I have no doubt we’ll be getting into electric bus at some point but not for the next three years at least it’s not likely something we can as there are no funds allocated in that timeframe.”

Halifax Transit head Dave Reage presenting at council February 12, 2019, when council approved an expanded purchase of conventional diesel buses.

The project that might have been

The project that Halifax Transit has cut ties with is the Pan-Canadian Electric Bus Demonstration & Integration Trial, being coordinated nationally by the Canadian Urban Transit Research and Innovation Consortium (CUTRIC).  I wrote about it in detail earlier this year.

CUTRIC’s intention, executive director Josipa Petrunic told me in January, was to secure enough funding so that participating transit agencies could participate with the equivalent cost of diesel buses as their contribution. CUTRIC secured $2 million in federal funding for a Halifax trial, and was pursuing further opportunities. Halifax Transit on its own had already secured $250,000 from the Public Transit Infrastructure Fund (PTIF) to go towards an electric bus purchase, money which has since been returned.

CUTRIC was actively working on securing more funding. On January 8, CUTRIC emailed Halifax Transit staff alerting them to a $50 million fund from Environment Canada focussed on the “low carbon economy” The CUTRIC staffer added, “additionally, CUTRIC would be submitting a bid to Canada Infrastructure Bank for funding the Phase II of the E-Bus project across all provinces. We would like to include Halifax’s ask also in this bid.”

Despite this forward momentum, and the advantages laid out in their own report from February 2018, Halifax Transit staff wrote to CUTRIC and a federal funding partner on Febuary 25, 2019 to inform them that the city would not be participating, “as the approved budget does not allow.”

Here’s Halifax Transit director Dave Reage’s explanation of why he decided to abandon participation in the trial, in an email to CAO Jacques Dubé dated February 11, 2019.

Primary challenges are capital budgeting, not only for the buses themselves but also for significant upgrades to one of our transit garages to be able to charge the buses — both in terms of chargers themselves and potentially supporting electrical infrastructure. Edmonton is buying 40 buses I believe and are having to build an electrical substation to get enough power into the building to charge the buses. There is evidence of operational cost savings down the road.

The other big challenge is that organizationally we are not ready for them. Our early project work has been conducted by one person off the side of their desk. Getting into electric buses would be a major project that would need to be properly resourced — most transit systems are using a program office approach. So even if the money were in place we wouldn’t be able to deliver at the current time.

Aside from the capital requirements, the buses are not yet at a place where they can replace a diesel bus one for one. The primary issue is range and battery life. It is getting better but not there yet. It’s really still a bit of an experimental technology. This is not insurmountable but precludes simple replacing diesel buses 1:1 with electric buses at this point in my view.

Let’s examine Reage’s reasons for quitting the trial, one by one.

Excuse #1: Capital budgeting (aka, we can’t afford them)

Reage seems to ignore the rather clear message from CUTRIC that transit agencies are expected to contribute the equivalent cost of purchasing diesel buses as their commitment to the total project costs. He certainly understood this at some point, as he pointed it out in his letter of support, dated February 7, 2018, where he commits to spending $500,000 a piece for eight battery electric buses.

Reage also surely knows that Halifax Transit can afford to spend this much on buses, because that’s at least how much it spends on diesels. In February of this year, council approved spending $22.7 million on 35 diesel buses, roughly $650,000 a piece. Each of those buses is expected to last 12-13 years, so that’s a commitment to running those 35 diesels into roughly 2032.

With the operational savings from electric buses, and the current subsidized cost being on par with diesel, how can we afford not to try them?

In other capital budgeting news, until recently there was $1.25 million sitting in an account with “electric buses” written all over it.  That is, until city staff opted to give back $250,000 in federal PTIF funding, and return the other council-approved $1 million to the general pot, all without going back to council for discussion.

The provincial Department of Energy was expected to be one of the contributing funders to the pilot. The department had written a letter of support back in February 2018, and in March of this year emailed Halifax Transit staff to enquire about the status of “the electric bus pilot with CUTRIC.”  The letter goes on to say, “we are looking at some budget items and would like to follow up with you on your plans for 2019/20.”  The response from Halifax Transit was, of course, thanks but no thanks, as it had just bailed on the CUTRIC project.

Excuse #2: We might need to build a new electrical substation

Reage says Edmonton is having to upgrade their electrical capacity at their garage to accommodate charging of 40 new battery electric buses, and that’s a reason that Halifax back out of this opportunity to test BEBs here.

I’m not sure what relevance Edmonton’s situation has for a Halifax trial, especially considering Edmonton bourght 40 buses, not eight, and the state of electrical infrastructure around the respective garages is likely not the same. Regardless, when WSP studied converting to electric buses in 2017, it found that, “from an energy consumption perspective, Nova Scotia Power suggests that there will be little impact to the grid requiring electric grid improvements for a pilot program or system-wide adoption scenarios.”

Excuse #3: “Organizationally we are not ready for them”

Well, it’s hard to argue with this one, as Reage is the head of this particular organization, and so his priorities are essentially Halifax Transit’s priorities.

Council could of course come in and foist the funding upon Reage, but he makes it clear that, “even if the money were in place we wouldn’t be able to deliver at the current time.” That is the same message that CAO Jacques Dubé sent councillors after they approved more funding for the city’s capital budget this year: nice try, councillors, but we still won’t be doing these things.

As excuses go, this falls in the valid category, because it is simply Reage’s prerogative. If Reage wanted to be ready to follow through on his previous commitment to CUTRIC and to council, he could have done so. Instead he chose to drag his feet, and so our transit agency is not “ready” to take advantage of this cost-neutral electric bus pilot which could cut emissions significantly, reduce operating costs (which probably means more bus service), and start on the inevitable path to getting off of fossil-fuel burning buses.

Excuse #4: The technology is just “not there yet”

Earlier in his message Reage mentioned that Edmonton is acquiring 40 electric buses, so clearly he is up on the current state of electrification in Canada. Winnipeg has been operating electric buses in harsh winter conditions for years. Montreal has started going electric and has committed to buying only electric buses by 2025. There are other examples from a variety of different city sizes: Brampton, Vancouver, and St. Albert, among them.

One of the main driving forces behind CUTRIC is to help transform the bus manufacturing industry in Canada, and to make sure the technology develops in a way that works for transit agencies of all sizes.

To be sure, this technology will continue to evolve and hopefully get a heck of a lot better. Who knows, maybe we end up going with electric trolley buses on our rapid transit routes in the future, and forego batteries altogether for parts of our network. But the technology is obviously ready to start using now. Cities are using it across Canada, North America, and the world.

Of course, Reage qualifies his statement by saying that electric bus technology is not ready for one-to-one replacement. In other words, it would not work to simply start buying all electric buses for all replacements to the fleet. That’s a straw man, because no one is suggesting that Halifax Transit do anything of the sort. The CUTRIC trial planned for eight electric buses to be used on specific routes where chargers would be available. It was a small, experimental step, not a foolhardy one-for-one replacement plan.

Will Halifax Transit ever be ready?

Had Halifax Transit proceeded with the CUTRIC trial, and used a portion of the bus replacement budget to incorporate eight new battery electric buses, it could have started keeping nearly 500 tonnes of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere in the first year of their use, and each year thereafter.

The purchase could have helped CUTRIC gather the type of data that will help transit agencies across the country convert to electric.

It would have started saving money on operating buses, paying a fraction of fuel costs for them, and freeing up that money for more service. (As Petrunic told me in January, if you can deploy the first electric buses on the least efficient diesel routes, you get even more bang for your buck.)

What’s more, had Halifax Transit proceeded with the CUTRIC trial, it would have been steeling our city against some of the risks of having all our eggs in the fossil fuel basket. We live in a world where the need for and predominance of carbon taxes and cap and trade schemes will likely only increase, putting an increasing premium on fuel costs. Halifax Transit, which uses over 10 million litres of diesel fuel a year, is particularly vulnerable to this imminent future cost.

With all this in mind, Reage’s prediction that electric buses are at least three years out for Halifax seems preposterous.

For its part, CUTRIC is still looking for partners (right now possibly still madly trying to find another agency interested in the $2 million Halifax turned down). Nova Scotia Power still stands to benefit from such a project, and while the Utility and Review Board ruled the utility could not invest in Nova’s Scotia’s current private vehicle charging network, NSP’s parent company Emera did make the investment, so its reasonable to think Emera might consider something similar for transit.

Nova Scotia’s Department of Energy has made no formal commitments, but is also a player in funding private EV infrastructure. The federal government had already climbed on board through one fund, and CUTRIC was exploring options for others. And last but not least, there’s HRM council, which has already declared a climate emergency in Halifax. There’s political will and resources available. All that’s left is for Halifax Transit to get on board.

For more background, read here.

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  1. Halifax transit should be forced to move forward on this EB project. If HRM council considers us in a climate emergency state, I don’t see how HT can just make this kind of decision.

  2. This is at least consistent with Halifax Transit’s refusal to consider the experiences of other transit systems when it comes to routing, fare collection, and so on. It’s also consistent with Halifax Transit’s generally grudging provision of services, which would not see saving money as a benefit.

  3. this really takes the cake, as my Mom would have said. They turned down money? They sent money back?