Cities are still working through early challenges, but they see health and climate benefits ahead. In Chicago, two buses save the city $24,000 a year in fuel costs.
China’s BYD electric bus company has a factory in Lancaster, California. While the vast majority of the world’s electric buses are in China, the U.S. numbers are growing. Credit: Li Ying/Xinhua via Getty Images
In the coastal city of Gulfport, Mississippi, the state’s first fully-electric bus will soon be cruising through the city’s downtown streets.
The same goes for Portland, Maine—it just received a grant to buy that state’s first two e-buses, which are set to roll out in 2021. And Wichita expects to have Kansas’ first operating electric bus picking up passengers as early as this month after receiving a federal grant.
As cities and states across the country set ambitious mid-century climate change goals for the first time and as prices for lithium-ion batteries plummet, a growing number of transit agencies are stepping up efforts to replace dirtier diesel buses with electric ones.
Nearly every state has a transit agency that now owns—or will soon own—at least one electric bus, according to a recent report from CALSTART, a clean transportation advocacy group.
Demand for e-buses is outpacing manufacturers’ ability to supply them, resulting in hundreds of backlogged orders in the United States, said Fred Silver, vice president of CALSTART. “Almost every state now has a program. So that is unique—it’s gone beyond interest in just a few states.”
The U.S. numbers are still small compared to the hundreds of thousands of electric buses in China, but they’re growing. There are about 650 e-buses on U.S. roads today, but that’s more than double the 300 that the clean energy research group BloombergNEF counted last year. And under current pledges by states, cities and urban transit agencies, at least a third of the nation’s nearly 70,000 public transit buses will be all-electric by 2045, according to a separate report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG).
So far, California leads the pack, with more than 200 e-buses in service and several hundred more in backlogged orders. Only five states—Arkansas, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota and West Virginia—have no transit agencies planning to operate electric buses or hydrogen fuel cell buses, another type of zero-emission vehicles.
Swapping diesel for electric buses isn’t as simple as pressing the starter button, though, and local transportation agencies are still feeling their way through the challenges. The upfront costs are still higher for electric buses than diesel; cities have to build out charging infrastructure to support them; and, in some cities, electricity rates have cut into the savings.
But urban leaders also see long-term benefits in fuel savings and for human health and the climate.
The transportation sector has become the largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, responsible for nearly 30 percent of total emissions across the country, according to Environmental Protection Agency data. Heavy-duty vehicles, which include passenger buses, garbage trucks and delivery trucks, account for about a quarter of the global warming emissions from vehicles. And the latest climate science makes clear that emissions from all automotive tailpipes must fall to zero by around mid-century to have a shot at avoiding catastrophic climate change. MORE