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the road ahead

A fleet of electric buses manufactured by China's BYD are parked at a bus terminal in Santiago, Chile, on Nov. 28, 2018.Rodrigo Garrido/Reuters

A majority of Canadians would like their buses to be greener.

In a November EKOS poll, 80 per cent of respondents supported Ottawa’s plan to spend $1.5-billion to get 5,000 electric school and transit buses on Canadian roads by 2025.

“It was surprising just how broad the support was,” said Gideon Forman, climate-change and transportation policy analyst with the David Suzuki Foundation, which commissioned the poll. “Even in Alberta, there’s 65 per cent support for electric buses – in Quebec, it was 87 per cent.”

The move is part of a three-year, $10-billion dollar plan to invest in clean-energy infrastructure. It includes adding zero-emissions buses and charging stations across the country.

Unlike hybrid buses or buses powered by natural gas or propane, zero-emissions buses are just that – they don’t emit any CO2 or pollution at all.

There are more than 425,000 electric buses on the road worldwide, but most of them are in China, according to Clean Energy Canada, a think tank at Simon Fraser University.

Modern zero-emissions buses can be powered by batteries or hydrogen fuel cells.

By 2040, two-thirds of all buses on the roads globally are expected to be powered by batteries, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Even though Canada has four electric bus manufacturers, we don’t have many battery-powered buses here yet.

Toronto – with 60 battery-electric buses – has North America’s largest fleet.

A few other cities are slowly adding them. Edmonton has purchased 40 battery-electric buses. Vancouver has six battery-electric buses, and there’s a $447-million plan to add 600 more to replace retiring diesel-powered buses in the region over the next decade.

Under Ottawa’s plan, about 1,000 electric buses would be added every year over the next five years.

Electric transit an old idea

While most buses in Canada are still powered by diesel, electric transit isn’t a new idea.

Subways and light-rail transit (LRT) systems in cities including Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal are all electric, but we had electric-powered public transportation decades before they were built.

In fact, electric streetcars replaced horse-pulled streetcars in Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal and St. John starting in the 1890s. By 1910, cities in every province except PEI had electric streetcars, but by the 1950s, every city except Toronto, where they still run, had scrapped them.

For decades, several Canadian cities had electric trolley buses, which, like streetcars, were powered by overhead cables. Vancouver is the last Canadian city that still has them.

Unlike the trolley buses and street cars, battery-electric buses don’t need overhead wires.

“Since you don’t have to put up the wires, you can run them anywhere and get them going on new routes quickly,” Forman said. “Not to disparage Vancouver’s trolley buses – they’ve done great work.”

Battery-powered buses are also smoother to ride and quieter than diesel-powered buses, he said.

And then there’s pollution. Even though battery-powered buses don’t emit CO2, they may get charged by power plants that do. For instance, in Alberta, power mainly comes from natural gas and coal.

But a 2018 U.S study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that electric buses emit less CO2 than diesel buses, even in states where they’re powered mainly by dirty energy.

Twice the cost?

So what’s slowing down the switch? Cost.

Battery-powered buses can cost roughly twice as much as a diesel bus, said Clean Energy Canada.

A battery-powered bus could cost up to $1.2-million, compared to $600,000 for a diesel bus, although that cost is decreasing as batteries get cheaper. Bloomberg expects that e-buses will be the same price as diesel buses by 2030.

Electric buses are also cheaper to run. Compared to a diesel-powered bus, each battery-powered bus is expected to cost $40,000 less to power every year, said TransLink, Metro Vancouver’s transit agency.

But cities also need to spend money on buying and installing charging stations.

“It’s not just buying the bus, it’s the infrastructure,” Forman said.

The Canadian Urban Transit Research and Innovation Consortium (CUTRIC) said it could as much $30-billion to electrify all of Canada’s roughly 15,000 public-transit buses – including buying the buses and adding the infrastructure.

In a letter last month, CUTRIC president and CEO Josipa Petrunic asked Ottawa to add another $3-billion to its $1.5-billion plan for 5,000 buses.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that public transit is at the centre of our society – and that our systems require accelerated federal investment to be resilient and meet the mobility needs of Canadians,” Petrunic said in the letter.

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