Buses are among the heaviest emitters in the transport sector, but with zero-emissions bus technology already proving effective, it is a sector that is ripe for electrification, says Hitachi Australia general manager Brett Dolan.
“The reason why buses are some of the first forms of transport to be electrified is that the technology is proven,” he says.
“Given the maturity of the technology in bus electrification, that is the lowest-hanging fruit and can make the largest dent in early carbon emissions reductions.”
Public transport operators all around the world are in the process of decarbonising their bus fleets.
As their traditional diesel-powered buses come to the end of their useful lives, they are being replaced with zero-carbon vehicles.
And the nation’s bus fleet operators are also working towards decarbonising.
In NSW the government has committed to transitioning the state’s 8000-strong bus fleet to zero emission technology by 2030.
Brisbane City Council is also introducing a new fleet of 60 all-electric, high-capacity Brisbane Metro vehicles, where Hitachi is delivering the bus charging technology.
There are generally two competing technologies for zero emissions buses. One is hydrogen-powered buses, which are generally more suitable for regional areas where the journeys are longer and the distribution of electricity is less extensive.
The other is electric buses where in built-up urban areas with significant electricity infrastructure, electric buses make more sense, particularly as the technology is more advanced.
Replacing many thousands of buses can present a significant investment challenge for transport operators, but Dolan says that the real benefits of zero emissions technology can be realised with economies of scale, with large fleets, rather than just starting with – for instance – 20 buses to see how it goes.
“We need to be striving for the best total cost of ownership model. This comes with a commitment to deploy large fleets where the best infrastructure design and whole of life outcomes can be achieved,” he says.
Retrofitting a depot designed for diesel buses so it can accommodate and charge electric buses is a major expense. Depots may need to be reconfigured to free up space for charging vehicles and the electricity grid may need to be upgraded.
“There’s a lot of focus on the buses themselves but the bus technology is essentially proven. There’s already been many proof of concepts to demonstrate that electric buses can provide the same service as a normal diesel bus,” says Dolan.
“They can basically operate for a full day without additional charging and do the full service, 300 to 400 kilometres.
“Battery technology is constantly improving and evolving, so that’s only going to reinforce the transition to electric buses. There’s less need to test the buses themselves.
“The largest challenge surrounds the electrical infrastructure for the depots, enabling the necessary charging of large fleets of buses under various operating scenarios, the integration of renewable energy and energy storage to drive a true zero-emission solution and using intelligent digital infrastructure and AI to optimise the operations, energy efficiency and maximise asset utilisation.”
Hitachi is participating in a major trial of about 3000 electric vehicles in the UK, called Optimise Prime, in conjunction with Royal Mail, Uber and electricity grid operators. The trial aims to understand how charging is going to impact grid infrastructure and grid stability.
Buses can be charged overnight, but they can also be charged on the go. In Europe, bus operators are deploying flash charging technology, where the charging connection is on the roof of the bus and automatically connects at the bus stop with an overhead charging point and performs a rapid charge during the 20 or 30 seconds when passengers are getting on and off.
“So rather than have the bus spend four hours connected at the depot on charge overnight, you can get two or three flash ‘top-up’ charges along the bus journey at particular locations – for certain bus routes this provides extra security of energy supply and also means the buses return to the depot with more charge, placing less demand on the charging infrastructure at the depot and the grid,” Dolan says.
Michelle Zeibots, a transport researcher at the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at University of Technology Sydney, says that over the long term, electric transport is cheaper to run than transport powered by internal combustion engines, because power costs less and maintenance costs are lower.
“In the long run, the infrastructure costs less as well. The thing with electric vehicles is that there’s a big upfront cost but the costs after that are dramatically lower than they are for internal combustion engine-driven transport modes of all kind,” she says.
Australia was initially slow to adopt electric vehicles, but Zeibots expects take up to increase rapidly, particularly as the public becomes more comfortable with the idea of electric transport.
“Governments need to embrace electric vehicles and provide incentives for their take up.”
Dolan says that once a bus depot has been fitted out with charging technology and energy storage, there are opportunities to use the infrastructure to bring in additional revenue to the operators.
“If you’ve got a depot with 100 buses and those buses are being charged overnight or they’re sitting in the depot as reserve, there’s a huge amount of energy storage there. That energy could potentially be also used for other purposes, especially when we consider that electric bus depots can now be co-located in building basements etc,” he says.
“Alternatively, you might have renewable energy on the roof of the depot. So you might be producing a huge amount of renewable energy. You might have some battery energy storage sitting at the depot as well, which not only provides emergency backup for your battery charging on the buses, but also might provide opportunities to have second and third-party charging for other vehicles.”
Hitachi was a Principal Partner of the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, underscoring its commitment to achieving carbon neutrality by 2030 at all offices and factories and by 2050 at entire value chain.