Contributed by Robert Lyman © 2022. Robert Lyman’s bio can be read here.
Several of Canada’s largest cities have recently purchased all-electric buses and announced plans to buy many more.
Proponents of battery-electric buses claim that they will have lower operating costs than diesel-powered buses due to lower fuel costs and lower maintenance costs. There is no doubt that their initial capital cost is higher. A brand-new diesel-powered bus costs $500,000 in Canada, half of what most transit systems now pay for all-electric buses.
NGV America, an organization that promotes natural gas-powered vehicles, published its assessment of the cost arguments used by electric bus proponents using data from the actual experience of transit companies in the United States . It found that over their lifetimes electric buses are unlikely to be less costly to own and operate than either natural gas buses or diesel buses, especially when factoring in the need for additional buses and costly infrastructure upgrades. The cost disadvantage arises from a number of factors:
• Frequent breakdowns of all-electric buses in some US cities have made them available for service only 63% of the time.
• Due to the limitations of electric bus operating range, electric charging requires multiple hours and multiple sites
• Electric buses can only be operated on certain carefully selected routes
• Electric bus performance worsens considerably in extreme cold or hot weather conditions
• Electric buses have difficulty with battery-powered heating and cooling, requiring a fuel-powered solution; those costs are rarely included in the cost comparisons
• Electric bus advocates fail to evaluate the costs and extent of major electric utility upgrades needed to accommodate an expected surge in electricity transmission and demand for electric buses
Governments, by their direct and indirect subsidies, are biasing the investment decisions of cities and transit commissions and encouraging the purchase of vehicles that never would have been bought if normal economic and financial considerations prevailed. From an economic perspective, this promotes a misallocation of resources that ultimately will make us all worse off. The fact that this is being done on borrowed money makes the situation even worse.
The vast investment that many Canadian municipalities are making in light rail and bus transit seems premised on the view that there will be a constantly increased demand for such service.
The Canadian Chamber of Commerce released a study entitled Canada’s Workplace Mobility Trends in November 2022 in which it analyzed changes in mobility patterns across Canada since the start of the pandemic. It showed that the pandemic produced a large reduction in the percentage of people who commuted to work by whatever means. In Calgary, for example, commuting to work declined by 42% from January 2020 to September 2022.
Public transit ridership has plummeted. According to Statistics Canada , in July 2022 transit agency operating revenues (excluding subsidies) were still under two-thirds (66.1%) of the pre-pandemic July 2019 level.
If all the major Canadian cities carry out their announced plans to spend lavishly on battery electric buses, the total capital cost will approach $3 billion by 2030. So, what would be the environmental benefits? Canada’s total GHG emissions account for only 1.6% of the global total and the total GHG emissions from bus, rail and aviation passenger transportation combined is just over one per cent of Canada’s total emissions. In other words, completely eliminating all GHG emissions from buses in Canada would have a vanishingly small impact on the global climate. The expenses incurred represent only symbolic gesturing.