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Financing, infra key to public bus fleet electrification: Schneider

Race to greener public transportation requires examining more than money

The entrance to Schneider Electric's Montreal laboratory for digital buildings. (Courtesy Schneider Electric)
Michael Habouri, the national mobility segment leader of Schneider Electric Canada. (Courtesy Schneider Electric)

The transition to electrified public transit buses will require upgrading the charging infrastructure, considering new business models and training thousands of technicians, according to Schneider Electric Canada's Michael Habouri.

Habouri, who is the national mobility segment leader for the Canadian division of the French digital automation and energy management company, spoke to Sustainable Biz Canada about the challenges and opportunities facing the electrification of public transit buses.

Transportation is responsible for approximately a quarter of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the federal government.

Though $2.75 billion in Canadian government funding from the Zero Emission Transit Fund has been earmarked to add 5,000 electric public and school buses to the roads by the end of 2025, money alone will not solve the potential impediments. Some issues will require rethinking how to pay for the infrastructure and managing the substantial jolt in energy demand.

“Time is ticking,” Habouri said. “They (transit authorities) need to act by 2025 on purchasing these multiple solutions, at least the buses, so they can start achieving their goals by 2027, 2030."

The roadblocks for bus electrification

The prime issue is financing. Habouri said a Schneider Electric project to electrify one bus depot in the U.S. for testing — covering electrical equipment, charging infrastructure and batteries — cost approximately US$20 million. The price tag for a total conversion across the country would be significant.

Think tank Clean Energy Canada in its 2020 report on bus electrification said experts anticipate facility upgrades alone to cost $1 billion to $1.5 billion.

“Bus purchases themselves make up a relatively small portion of the total suite of costs to electrify fleets. Charging infrastructure, depot construction or retrofits, route planning, and civil and electrical work on grid connections add up,” the report states

Funding this transition means understanding business models such as energy-as-a-service, fleet-as-a-service and charging-as-a-service that are new to the public transit industry.

Also critical is comprehending the infrastructure and systems behind an electrified bus depot.

“If we looked historically, they had their buses parked outside and they can go anywhere to get some diesel or . . . gas and they just keep on rolling. Then they thought, ‘OK, now we just need an electric bus and a charger,’ and then they realize 'no, it’s way bigger than that, because we need to electrify the whole building,' ” Habouri said.

To renovate and operate the electrified bus terminals, many more trained workers such as engineers, electrical technicians and software experts must be brought in. Habouri estimates thousands more must become educated and qualified to meet predicted demand.

Of the Canadian transit authorities, he said the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) is leading by creating electrified bus depots paired with a microgrid. He also named Vancouver’s TransLink, Société de transport de Montréal, Quebec City's Réseau de Transport de la Capitale (RTC) and Ontario’s Metrolinx as other trailblazers.

Ensuring a smoother drive to electrification

To accelerate electrification, Habouri outlined possible initiatives that can be taken to overcome these problems.

A more supportive environment for governments and public transit operators to understand the creation of funding structures is one suggestion to help gain the funding needed for electrification.

The Canadian Urban Transit Research & Innovation Consortium, a Toronto-based non-profit, has a platform with governments and companies collaborating on projects. An example is a trial involving ABB, Siemens, Nova Bus and New Flyer to address charging system incompatibility in Canada.

Transit authority groups are speaking to governments advocating for funding programs to bring more trained workers or to allocate funding for stakeholders such as Indigenous Canadians, he said.

Habouri noted efficient electrification requires digitization to collate and analyze data, so he suggests transit authorities consider the importance of software and artificial intelligence.

“As soon as we electrified everything and we have all these systems running and ready, now okay, how do we make sure we’re properly operating, and how do we make sure that we’re properly tracking our assets and maintaining them?”

Companies that have experience in electrification, such as Schneider Electric, can offer their experiences, setbacks and learnings to public transit authorities, he also said.

In a similar vein, the Alberta-based Pembina Institute’s recent report on decarbonizing medium- and heavy-duty trucks and buses urges:

  • phasing sales requirements across vehicle categories to ease the transition to electric vehicles;
  • collaborating with Canadian zero-emissions vehicle manufacturers to train 10,000 technicians by 2030; and
  • preparing infrastructure through moves such as establishing standardization protocols for chargers.

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