Bus Industry News, Charging Infrastructure, Electric Buses

Inside the state of the current Australian electric bus industry

In Australia, the bus and coach industry is quickly finding ways to integrate battery electric technology into national networks. But are we doing it fast enough? ABC investigates the state of the battery electric bus transition.

Over the past five years, Transit Systems have been a part of the massive change in the Australian bus and coach industry. Transit Systems CEO Michael McGee says the operator now oversees a growing green fleet. As Australia’s largest operator of zero-emissions bus and coach assets, McGee says Transit Systems has developed an industry blueprint for the successful transition to zero-emissions technology for the Australian market.

Transit Systems has seen an accelerated development in the past couple of years as the industry moves quickly towards a greener future.

“There has been significant innovation and government policy change when it comes to procuring and integrating zero-emissions technology, especially over the past two years,” McGee told ABC.  “Most state governments have moved from making small commitments to trials of zero-emissions buses and making subtle changes with the green fleet preferences and commitments to publicly stating their declaration to procure only zero-emissions buses from a set date.

“As data on the technology and infrastructure emerges and industry can present best practice options, governments now have the option to start confidently purchasing low or zero-emissions buses that make an immediate impact.”

Yet it wasn’t all a constant dash to buying new zero-emissions buses. McGee says the Australian technology uptake has developed through pilot programs leveraging global collaboration and research, local area trials, data analysis and the exploration of funding options.

The energy transition needed detailed data analysis and research from the type of bus and battery chemistry to the depot infrastructure and charging design to the impact on the local electrical grid and funding options with federal and state government grants all considered to support the transition to zero-emissions.

“Governments are trying to secure funding for the upfront capital investment when it comes to electric buses and charging infrastructure, while manufacturers are working with emerging technology,” McGee says. “Operators are collecting data to calculate the ownership benefit of running electric buses, which we’re constantly investing in trialling, testing and capturing data to ensure we are delivering value for money, efficiencies and return on investment.”

As general manager of fleet, innovation and business intelligence at Transit Systems, Mark Peters says depot design also remains a challenge for the industry.

“We can use around 10 to 15 per cent of an existing depot footprint trying to make room for electric battery charging equipment,” Peters told ABC. “It’s a complex retrofit, so we’re collaborating with all levels of government and industry partners to establish a blueprint and best practice approach.”

 Transit Systems’ Mark Peters

For congested depots, finding new sites to expand to is a difficult task and if these depots are city-based, traffic congestion, electrical supply and the lack of parking adds to the space issue. Transit Systems has spent considerable time researching and finding new ways to maximise depot space for large-scale charging infrastructure.

“Charging infrastructure has evolved rapidly and operators have a number of options to consider when examining their depot design and layout limitations,” Peters says. “This includes charging centres with dispensers on site to pantograph charging designs and gantry drop down plug in chargers.

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“There are benefits and challenges associated with any new technology, so we’ll continue to work with our partners.”

Although this battery electric bus change may seem rapid to those within the industry, electric vehicle experts are frustrated by the pace of the transition. As the head of policy at the Electric Vehicle Council (EVC) Australia, Jake Whitehead is hoping recent developments will help accelerate the bus and coach industry’s zero-emissions journey.

“It’s been a relatively slow start to the electric change over the past few years,” Whitehead told ABC. “However, in the past 12 months we’ve seen some exciting announcements from governments in terms of active support for electrifying public transport bus fleets.

“There’s a lot more work that needs to be done, particularly for governments where more investment is required to accelerate the transition.”

Based on current commitments, Whitehead expects there to be around 2,000 electric buses operating in Australia by 2030. Currently, he says there are close to 80,000 buses to transition in both the public and private sectors of bus and coach transport. Although the industry is making progress in its electrification journey, Whitehead says transport is the sector lagging behind when it comes to making sustainable change.

“Realistically, we shouldn’t be buying any new diesel buses from today onwards,” Whitehead says. “That is something that could’ve been implemented already, with some governments heading towards that, but we need to bring it forward.

“Right now, there haven’t been any significant programs to help private bus operators in decarbonising their fleets.”

Whitehead is hopeful these strategies are soon implemented. The EVC head of policy says many Australians have already experienced these electric vehicles and know the benefits of them, particularly when it comes to removing the carcinogenic fumes that diesel buses emit.

To encourage more operators to incorporate electric buses into their fleets, Whitehead wants to see financial subsidies introduced.

“Electric buses are already cost competitive, but operators need schemes to help reduce the upfront cost barriers of purchasing this technology,” Whitehead says. “As a small or medium operator, the extra money for an electric bus is significant. It doesn’t have to be a large subsidy, but it needs to give operators financial support to bridge the gap so that over a 10 year period they can see their upfront investment being paid off as the bus becomes cheaper to operate and charge.”

All of these strategies pale in significance to the main issue that Whitehead sees when it comes to the lagging uptake of electric buses. He says current government mandates on the amount of local content involved in the manufacturing of battery electric buses and coaches is limiting the industry’s ability to mass produce new vehicles.

“There’s an increasing and continued reliance on making all of these new electric buses be manufactured locally,” Whitehead says. “We still want to support the local bus industry, but this transition is on an unprecedented scale.

“We need to be selling around 5,000 electric buses every year for the next 15 years or so to transition to 100 per cent electric buses in time. To do this, we need to have some buses imported fully, some imported chassis and some completely locally built options.”

Whitehead says this system could allow the industry to be solely independent when it comes to manufacturing electric buses by the 2040s. But it all comes down to the ambition of the local market.

 The EVC’s Jake Whitehead

For operators like Transit Systems, finding the right mix when it comes to procuring electric buses is critical to escalating the transition. McGee says the best way forward is with a shared vision and true collaboration between governments and industry experts.

While continuing to refine these strategies with government, Peters wants to see depot design discussions increase while also keeping an open mind about the right technology to take the Australian bus and coach sector forward. Although battery electric technology is currently leading the nation forward in its zero-emissions journey as we speak, McGee says hydrogen will play an important part in the years ahead when it comes to sustainable bus and coach networks.

“Although battery electric technology is incredible, we still have to remain open to the benefits that hydrogen fuel cell buses can provide the industry,” McGee says. “I think it’s an exciting time in the industry and the emerging technology will only continue to improve and provide the industry with more sustainable options that will benefit the local communities and customers we serve.”

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