Could Electric Buses Play A Role In Making South Florida More Resilient?

Dec 13, 2017

More than 600 local policymakers and activists are set to share ideas on regional challenges at the Southeast Florida Climate Leadership Summit in Fort Lauderdale on Thursday and Friday. And sea level rise and traffic are likely to be major topics of conversation.

One solution that may be discussed: electric buses. Officials, including Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, say they're a way to cut carbon emissions while increasing mobility on congested roadways.

"If a city is in the market for 100 diesel buses, they can relatively quickly pivot to buying a vehicle that doesn't have any pollution," said Ryan Popple, CEO of Proterra, one of the few U.S. electric bus manufacturers. "There's nothing structurally different about how electric buses work. ... What changes is that you eliminate the noise, the vibration, the harshness of that high-horsepower engine. You eliminate tailpipe pollution."

He said the company provides or will soon provide buses to about 10 percent of major U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago and Tallahassee. Florida, he added, is a prime market because of the urgent need for transit and sea level rise solutions.

But electric buses have skeptics. They generally cost more upfront than diesel buses do: Proterra says their electric buses costs about $700,000 on average, but a diesel bus typically costs about $450,000.

However, those costs may be offset in the long run, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. The agency's page on zero-emission buses says electric buses have lower operational and maintenance costs than conventional buses.

"Electric buses have been observed to log 133,000 miles between maintenance, compared to compressed natural gas buses that logged on average about 45,000 miles between maintenance," the agency says.

Proterra says its electric buses require about $7,000 per year in energy costs, versus about $32,000 per year for a diesel bus and $25,000 per year for a diesel hybrid bus.

In Miami-Dade County, some residents object to electric buses because they say they were promised light rail in the county’s long-term public transit plan, the “SMART Plan.” They aren’t happy with Mayor Gimenez and other county officials who say light rail is too expensive and are looking at electric buses instead.

Popple says it’s an issue of perception, that people see buses as noisy, exhaust-spewing boxes, but view light rail as sleek, quiet and clean.

He says that's how electric buses are, too, and that communities that move to electric buses instead of rail don't have to pay the cost of installing tracks.

"What's happened with electric bus technology is that a lot of the benefits of light electric rail are now possible at a tenth of the cost," he said.

The original version of this story cited a 2007 Environment and Energy Study Institute report using U.S. Department of Transportation data that said the average cost of a diesel bus was between $250,000 and $300,000. Those statistics were found to be error, and the story has since been updated with more recent cost estimates from Proterra.