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Josipa Petrunic, president and CEO of CUTRIC, in front of a Toronto Transit Commission streetcar. 'There's no way to get to our COP26 promises without getting rid of cars for the majority of commutes,' Petrunic says.SUPPLIED

At the United Nations COP26 climate summit in Glasgow this fall, delegates tossed around ominous words like “urgent,” “crisis” and “catastrophe.” And for good reason.

The impacts of climate change have reached a dangerous tipping point – triggering droughts, crop failures, political instability, and the refugee movements and global migration that come along with those natural disasters. They have also led to extreme temperature swings, nonstop forest fires and mass deluges and floods, including the recent disastrous events here at home in British Columbia.

The need for change in Canada is real. As human beings, we emit 1.5 per cent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. That might sound small, but, given the tiny size of our population, Canadians are one of the highest polluters on Earth. Our transportation needs – the cars and trucks we drive – make up 30 per cent of our greenhouse gas emissions, and yet, we’re driving and buying more cars than ever. All of this offsets environmental advances we have made in other areas, like the cancellation of coal-fired electricity in Ontario or the incentivization of electric buses in Quebec.

If Canada is going to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, which we keep promising our kids, fulfilling our COP26 ‘Route Zero’ pledge to sell only zero-emission cars and vans by 2040 won’t suffice. Deep cuts and behavioural changes across society are the only way out.

“Our lives need to change,” says Josipa Petrunic, president and CEO of the Canadian Urban Transit Research & Innovation Consortium (CUTRIC), a Canadian technology consortium launched in 2015 to design, deploy and advance zero-carbon and smart-enabled transportation and mobility solutions. (It’s also an organization committed to gender parity in mobility going forward – women comprise 60 per cent of its board of directors, a number greater than at any other North American transit organization.)

“There’s no way to get to our COP26 promises – or anything near those promises – without charging people for every kilometre of roadway used in personal cars and trucks, and mostly getting rid of cars for the majority of regular commutes,” says Petrunic. That means people driving less, even if they have an electric car, and taking rapid and frequent public transit in the form of electrified and hydrogen-powered buses, streetcars, subways, trains and more.

As a non-profit, CUTRIC supports municipalities, transit agencies and other organizations through the complex task of making the change to zero-emission buses (ZEBs), with an eye to social accountability. “My team is not paid to make sales,” Petrunic says. “We’re paid to design and deploy complex green-technology projects that no single transit agency or manufacturer can do on their own.”

Collaboration is key because complicated technologies require innovative solution-building across competitors in an industry. “Working with municipalities, we understand they know their fleet and their community best,” says Parvathy Pillai, program manager with CUTRIC’s ZEB Non-Profit Consulting Services. “They know what their needs are, and CUTRIC guides them to make neutral and scientific decisions about electric fleets to reduce costs and to get to zero faster.”

The future of ZEBs

While the Canadian government has vowed to have 5,000 ZEBs on the road over the next five years, there are currently just 170 in operation. Within two years, Petrunic says Canada will have about 620 – an impressive leap, but nowhere near enough.

To get to zero emissions, transit agencies need to reframe how they organize routes to enable recharging – buses need to recharge regularly, and they’ll often do it right on the road, with overhead chargers. “It blows up transit schedules, and it’s a complete system overhaul,” Petrunic says.

The electrification-system overhaul Petrunic describes is also expensive. An electric bus can cost more than $1-million, around double the cost of a regular diesel bus. Chargers cost millions of dollars too. And agencies need new staff – electricians, electrical engineers, new project managers, and new trainers and maintenance officers. The plus side is that ZEBs are less expensive to run over the long term, and will increasingly become cheaper as renewable electricity drops in price with volume, and diesel increases in cost with carbon pricing.

Much-needed support

CUTRIC’S ZEB Consulting Services help communities assess the feasibility of transitioning their transit systems, calculate costs, understand the products on the market and fine-tune implementation from pilots to full rollouts.

Pivotal to this work is CUTRIC’s specially developed simulation tool, RoutΣ.i (which is pronounced Route I – the sigma symbol stands for aggregation and summation of energy production, and the “i” for artificial intelligence). It was developed by the organization’s in-house economists, mathematicians and physicists, and refined using real-world data from customers – such as the Toronto Transit Commission, Brampton Transit and Orange County Transportation Authority in Southern California, among others.

“We improve the tool and we share it back,” Pillai says. RoutΣ.i allows municipalities to predict the performance of ZEBs on their routes with a variety of charging strategies, which highlight a system’s energy needs and challenges. “When it comes to a brand-new technology, transit systems are looking for evidence-based, neutral and holistic guidance that facilitates successful decarbonization,” says Pillai of the value of this tool. “CUTRIC supports agencies to do it right the very first time, and every time.”

Pillai and her team complete feasibility studies for municipalities using RoutΣ.i, and then help present them to town councils to earn funding for the transition. This data can also be used to apply for the $2.75-billion Zero Emission Transit Fund at Infrastructure Canada – since CUTRIC is a non-profit, it can apply for funding on behalf of cities. So far, it has a 100 per cent success rate in applying for federal funding in this regard.

On March 30, 2022, the ZEB Consulting Services team will be running a virtual presentation to explain their offerings. During the event, they’ll formally launch RoutΣ.i 3.0, the third generation of the tool. As well, they’ll debut RoutΣ.i Lite, a less intensive and more affordable version of the tool for smaller centres or cities curious about the long-term feasibility of going zero emission.

Successes with ZEBs

CUTRIC has helped numerous communities across Canada and the U.S. understand their ZEB needs. Now, to further show just what these vehicles can do on the road, CUTRIC is running the Pan-Canadian Battery Electric Bus Demonstration and Integration Trial, which includes Brampton Transit, Viva in Toronto’s York Region and TransLink in southern B.C., plus ZEB manufacturers and local utilities.

“We’re collecting performance data and lessons learned and sharing it with project partners, so they can learn from each other,” Pillai says. This information is being shared through yet another innovative tool, CloudTransit, a cloud-based system that lets partners view and assess vehicle performance in real time.

Canada has a long way to go to get the number of ZEBs we need on the road. It’s a significant cost for communities, but their investments will go a long way to helping Canada clean up its GHG emissions.

Organizations like CUTRIC that take an evidence-based, social-accountability approach to supporting communities in making this change are key to achieving a much greener future.

“For the next 30 years, we’re going to be building infrastructure for zero-emission transit,” says Petrunic. “We already spent more than 50 years paying taxes to build large roadways, and where did it get us? To a polluted world. Transit is a better investment for taxpayers.”


For more information, visit https://cutric-crituc.org/. To register for CUTRIC’s free virtual Zero Emission Bus Consulting Services event on January 27, 2022, visit https://events.bizzabo.com/zebconference2022.


Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio with CUTRIC. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.