June 10, 2021
Electric buses to debut, marking trend in Whatcom County
Kimberly Cauvel

“100% electric” read signs on the latest additions to Whatcom Transportation Authority’s fleet. Part of the strategy to help mitigate climate change through reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, the buses are expected to go into service this weekend.

photo: Kimberly Cauvel © 2021
June 10, 2021
Electric buses to debut, marking trend in Whatcom County
Kimberly Cauvel

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While Whatcom Transportation Authority buses are a common sight throughout the county, two all-blue additions with “100% electric” emblazoned on their sides are making a debut this spring. 

They are Whatcom Transportation Authority’s (WTA) first two electric buses — part of a growing movement to replace fossil-fuel-powered vehicles with electric models to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change. 

WTA Community Relations and Marketing Manager Maureen McCarthy said the buses arrived in late March and early April and are expected to start serving riders Sunday, June 13. In the meantime, WTA drivers and management have been getting to know the new vehicles. 

WTA trainer Corey Rieder said the electric engines have more power — which improves the acceleration up steep Alabama Hill, for example. The buses also have regenerative braking capability that recharges the batteries and reduces the need to brake forcefully. 

“It’s pretty incredible,” Rieder said while taking one of the buses on a test run. “I’m just constantly impressed.” 

Rieder is one of two trainers helping WTA’s 175 drivers get acquainted with WTA’s first two electric buses. They join a fleet of 52 diesel and 8 hybrid buses serving 31 routes across Whatcom County. 

Global trend

Battery-powered public transit vehicles have been widely adopted in China and their use is on the rise across Europe. In the U.S., California has led the adoption of electric buses, and in Washington, King County Metro serving the Seattle area is furthest along toward transitioning to an all-electric fleet. 

Purchase of WTA’s electric buses was made possible with a $2.3 million grant from the Federal Transportation Administration’s Low or No Emission Vehicle Program, launched in 2016. In addition to the federal grant, WTA spent $575,000 to complete the installation of the chargers, run quality checks and troubleshooting for the new vehicles, and train staff. 

Governed by a board of directors including local elected officials representing the county, City of Bellingham and other municipalities and a representative of the transit workers’ union, WTA is funded primarily by a portion of local sales tax revenue. 

The electric buses were built by Gillig, Inc., which has supplied WTA’s diesel and hybrid buses, as well. Gillig is new to the electric-bus scene, with the production of its electric model beginning in May 2020

Purchasing the buses from the same manufacturer as WTA’s other models is meant to maintain as much consistency as possible for drivers and passengers, as well as reduce maintenance needs because most parts — from windows and seats to tires and handrails — are the same. 

“The bus itself is the same bus as the rest of our fleet, so our staff is already trained on how to maintain the body and other components that are similar,” Bozzo said. “For items where we need to have spares in our warehouse, they’re the same.” 

Reduced emissions — and road noise

For riders, the biggest difference — aside from the blue exterior — is subtle: the quiet of the electric engine running on battery power. 

Six batteries tucked near the rear wheels, at the back of the bus and within the top of the bus, can hold a collective 444 kilowatt hours worth of energy. That gives the bus an about 150-mile range, compared to an about 400-mile range for a diesel bus. 

For drivers, the regenerative braking, the digital screen on the dash and the extended length of the electric buses are the primary changes. 

“They are one foot longer, which can make a fair bit of difference for the tail swing,” McCarthy said. 

The cut in fuel-burning emissions is the big-picture change — one part the organization can play in regional air quality and global climate change. 

“It is by far the single most effective way we have to reduce our emissions,” McCarthy said. “… The action we can take with the largest impact is replacing diesel buses with electric buses.” 

Over the anticipated 12-year life of a bus, McCarthy said WTA uses about 150,000 gallons of diesel. Each electric bus added to the fleet that doesn’t use that fuel will prevent about 280 tons of greenhouse gases, 50 pounds of particulates and 1,000 pounds of nitrogen oxides from being emitted.  

Part of the plan

Transportation-based emissions need to be reduced to limit severe impacts from climate change. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, transportation accounts for about one-fourth of the nation’s energy use, and less than 2% of that energy currently comes from electric sources. 

Because the transportation sector — including cars, buses, trucks, boats, trains and airplanes — produces about 45% of Washington state’s greenhouse gas emissions, the Northwest Clean Air Agency supports a transition to electric vehicles. Agency spokesperson Seth Preston said a letter of support was provided when WTA sought grant funding for its electric buses, and the new arrivals are the first the air agency is aware of within its jurisdiction across Whatcom, Skagit and Island counties. 

“We’re supportive,” Preston said. “We want to reduce air pollution, improve and maintain air quality, and reduce climate-impacting greenhouse gases.” 

WTA listed reducing emissions as one of the organization’s own goals in its most recent strategic plan, published in April 2017. The next year, WTA began construction of a $1.7 million parking lot with infrastructure to support charging up to 12 electric buses, then applied for federal funding to start bringing those buses to the county. 

A new plan in development, called WTA40, will likely set new goals for the organization’s transition to electric buses. 

“These two first buses we got are basically to help us make that decision,” Bozzo said. “How do they perform? Is it a one-to-one replacement of an electric bus for a diesel bus? Does it take more buses to do the same work, or less buses because the maintenance turnaround is quicker?” 

Calculating cost

Those questions will also factor into the complicated issue of cost. 

An electric bus costs about twice as much as a diesel bus — at about $1 million per vehicle — yet maintenance over the life of the bus is less. Oil changes are eliminated, engine work is minimized and brakes, for example, last four times as long. Because diesel is expensive and prices fluctuate, electric bus fueling is also generally expected to be cheaper. 

“In March last year when COVID hit, diesel went down 50 cents a gallon [Ed.: corrected June 11, 2021]. It could go up to over $3 a gallon this summer, and we’ve paid over $4,” Bozzo said.

Fluctuations in electric prices are minimal. But a National Renewable Energy Laboratory report published in June 2020 indicates terrain, routes and other factors can make cost-benefit calculations for electric buses complex. 

“Some places are flat and the buses will perform better. Other places, like hills, require more power, so we can’t go as many miles,” Bozzo said. 

Because WTA’s electric buses haven’t been driven during winter when heating is required or with passengers, the organization can’t yet say what a year of operations will cost compared to running a diesel bus. 

“The biggest cost we’re trying to figure out and don’t have an answer to yet is the fueling,” Bozzo said. 

In general, he said a two-to-two bus comparison suggests fueling costs could break even when diesel is $2.25 per gallon. 

For electric fueling, WTA is charged a monthly demand fee based on the organization’s single highest time of use, and then charged by kilowatt hours consumed as well. As more buses are plugged into the chargers at the WTA parking lot, the demand fee and the usage fee will increase. But that cost will also be spread across more vehicles and more trips. 

Bozzo said that based on the demand fee charged and the kilowatt usage per mile during driver training, he expects to see the first two electric buses operate at between 40 and 50 cents per mile once in service. Diesel buses are currently using 50 cents worth of fuel per mile. 

If, after some time on the road, the electric buses come in at an unexpectedly steeper operations cost, Bozzo said WTA will find ways to cut costs rather than charge higher fares for riders. He also said the uncertainties that remain didn’t outweigh the need for WTA to give electric buses a try. 

“We’re trying to fill the governor’s guidelines to lower emissions, and the transition to electric is happening all over the world,” Bozzo said. 

Ten unoccupied charging spaces outside WTA offices signal that the organization is ready to add more electric buses to its fleet. 

McCarthy said WTA has applied for grant funding to purchase another six electric buses. The organization may find out this fall whether the grant is awarded, and if so, would likely see those buses in 2023. 

A broader movement

In Washington state, there is broad support for the movement to reduce fossil fuel use in transportation. 

Gov. Jay Inslee has supported emissions reduction policies, the Legislature has passed bills aimed at encouraging broader adoption of and access to electric vehicles, the Department of Transportation has invested in electric buses from Seattle to Spokane, and the Department of Ecology will invest in some of the state’s first electric school buses

Electrification is on the rise for personal vehicles, as well. 

To serve those, the Port of Bellingham has installed or supported installation of car chargers at its properties across the county, from Bellingham International Airport to the downtown Bellingham and Fairhaven waterfronts. Vehicle chargers have also sprung up in parking lots of grocery stores, outside Bellis Fair Mall, at new apartment complexes and in the downtown Bellingham parking garage. 

The city of Bellingham recently announced plans to bring another 27 charging stations online using a $1.5 million state Department of Commerce Electrification of Transportation grant. Bozzo said Bellingham is also partnering with WTA to install a charger at the organization’s Cordata Station. 

On the national stage, two bills proposed in Congress could provide additional support for shifting public transportation from fuel-powered to electric vehicles. Rep. Rick Larsen has introduced a bill supporting the purchase of all-electric vehicles for public transportation. Sen. Maria Cantwell has introduced a bill creating a new federal tax incentive for the adoption of electric vehicles, from cars to forklifts and ships to planes. Cantwell said the bill would also “help ensure the cleaner vehicles the world wants to buy are built here in the United States.”

Unrelated to WTA’s efforts, electric bus manufacturer Vicinity Motor Corp. — formerly Grande West — plans to open shop in Whatcom County. According to a permit application filed with the City of Ferndale and press releases issued online, the Canadian company is increasing its focus on an electric model. 

Eager to roll

Meanwhile, WTA is getting its inaugural electric buses road-ready: training drivers to operate the new vehicles, testing the charging procedure, tracking power use during test drives and weighing options for routes. 

McCarthy said because regenerative braking adds charge to the bus battery, routes with more stops may be best, but WTA is exploring all possibilities. 

“We’re really eager to try them out on all routes, in all terrains and in all weather conditions,” she said. “We will try them on the trip out to Lynden and the trip down to Mount Vernon and see how they do.” 

That tracking can even be done remotely while the buses are on the road, with an app that shares everything from speed traveled and battery level to kilowatts used and maintenance notices, Bozzo said.  

And while WTA, and soon riders, adjust to the introduction of electric buses, the all-blue look is meant to showcase that they are, for Whatcom County and Northwest Washington, something entirely new.

— Reported by Kimberly Cauvel

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