Electric buses: coming into power?

Electric buses: coming into power?

Firm deadlines have been set overseas for a move towards electric buses and greener transport. Sadly, this isn’t the case in South Africa. But some people are doing their part and laying the groundwork for a greener tomorrow.

A third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions comes from transport, according to IES, a French company specialising in high-performing electric chargers for electric vehicles in the European, North American and Asian markets.

In its piece “Electric buses: Where are we?“ it highlights the findings from a 2018 Bloomberg report, which states that electric vehicles have reduced the growth in oil consumption by more than 3% since 2011. It adds that three-quarters of the reduction in this consumption comes from electric buses.

Interestingly, China is by far the leader in terms of the deployment of electric buses. “To date, there are more than 421 000 electric buses circulating in Chinese cities, with a rate of circulation of 9 500 buses every five weeks,” IES reports. “In 2018, 99% of e-buses in circulation, in the world, were located in China.”

This was made possible by massive subsidies from the Chinese state. “Take the example of the city of Shenzhen. Each year, for nine years, the public transport operator in Shenzhen has received state aid of 500 000 yuan (more than R1 000 000) per electric vehicle purchased. In 2017, the city had a fleet of 100% electric buses, representing 16 359 vehicles for 12 million inhabitants.”

As for the US, it notes that many American cities and universities are acquiring fleets of electric buses. “With California being the most dynamic state on the subject, it has adopted a new rule that could be followed by many other states. This is the Innovative Clean Transit Rule. From 2023, 25% of new buses purchased must be ‘zero emission’. Then, in 2029, 100% of orders from California transport agencies [must be zero emission].”

Across the pond, the rules adopted by the European Union in February 2019 require that a quarter of new buses purchased by public authorities must be “clean” by 2025, “a ratio which will rise to one third from 2030. The expansion of bus lines in European cities will therefore intensify considerably in the years to come.” (Read more in the 4th issue of FOCUS, on page 24.)

Closer to home the road ahead isn’t nearly as clearly set out … but this isn’t stopping industry players from steaming ahead.

Golden Arrow Bus Services (GABS) is testing two electric buses until January 2022. “Currently, we are testing the buses without passengers, but we have loaded one of the buses with the equivalent weight of 44 passengers – so that we can get the energy consumption figures of an empty vehicle versus one that regularly carries 44 passengers,” said Gideon Neethling, company engineer at GABS, in his presentation “Electric Bust Test to Document the Potential Benefits and Challenges of Introducing Electric Buses in South Africa, the GABS Experience”. (It was discussed during a Transport Forum Zoom conference on April 8.)

A kickstart fund was provided by the national uYilo eMobility Programme, which was established in 2013 as an initiative to enable, facilitate and mobilise electric vehicle mobility in South Africa, with GABS handling the operations while using BYD buses.

“The target date for introducing the buses to our passengers is June 1,” explained Neethling, adding that the company wants to replace estimated variables with real-world figures. “We’ve got a saying at Golden Arrow, ‘the spreadsheet is forgiving’. You can tell me what the answer is and I’ll beat the spreadsheet until it gives me that. We want to move away from that and take a look at the complete picture with real figures and see if everything will be feasible.

“We want, for example, to take a look at charge times and other issues that go with charging, because that is going to become an interesting scheduling challenge if you ramp up a fleet like ours.”

The company has a fleet of more than 1 000 buses, which it has been renewing with more than 60 new buses a year, since the year 2000. This has enabled GABS to improve its fuel consumption from 2,38 km/l (in 2010) to 2,60 km/l in 2020 – “a 9% improvement in 10 years, and the related carbon reduction that goes with that,” he pointed out.

“With regards to electric buses, the elephant in the room is capital cost and battery life. Those two features probably scare people the most about electric vehicles,” he added. The test will also enable GABS to see what energy the buses will use per kilometre and what the maintenance costs will entail. “The aim is to get us off the spreadsheet and onto the tar.”

Neethling noted that the electric bus test was off to a promising start, but that it is still too early to publish results. “They will probably be available by early February,” he predicted.

And there is an array of additional challenges when it comes to electric buses – the government being a massive one. “There is no or limited support for the expensive start-up phase,” he explained. “When I say ‘limited’ I’m being generous; it is actually the opposite – they are penalising you, as there are higher taxes on imported electric vehicles than on internal combustion engines.”

Also problematic is the lack of active original equipment manufacturers within South Africa, so there is almost no support for electric buses within the country.

“The government should reduce the taxes or even get rid of them. There should be incentives for purchasing electric vehicles,” he said. “And they should address the tax discrepancies with ICE vehicles.”

Incentives should also be introduced to promote local electric vehicle manufacturing, he said, which would bode well for the country’s economy, but would also ensure that South Africa does not lose the vehicle manufacturing industry already in place.

Another challenge the EV industry faces is the cost and availability of electricity. “Whenever you mention electric vehicles, people tend to roll their eyes, because all that they can think of is the above-inflation cost escalations and load shedding. The question of where one is going to charge this thing comes to mind. But with solar one can really protect oneself against cost escalations and the availability issue.”

GABS has taken advantage of this and installed solar panels as long ago as 2017. “In 2017 we started a collaboration with the City of Cape Town, where we installed two small 25kWh peak solar facilities and we’ve ramped that up quite quickly to just over a megawatt-generating capacity at Golden Arrow, which is split over three of our depots.

“What we’ve also been able to achieve over the past three years is that two of our depots are now classified as carbon neutral, meaning that we supply more electricity to the City of Cape Town than we buy from them.”

Neethling added that GABS will also continue to add solar panels to its facilities whenever the company expands or replaces any infrastructure. This measure will enable it to charge its buses when they aren’t being used, during the day, with solar power. The company also aims to charge the buses during off-peak hours before and after its fleet runs in the morning and late afternoons.

“Imagine the potential of producing the energy that we need to power vehicles rather than importing it through fossil fuels,” Neethling said.

“When we are done with the tests, we want a complete oversight of the feasibility of the introduction of electric buses into South Africa,” said Neethling. “This is the groundwork and will probably be expanded over the next three to five years before we get to the real answer.”

It will be interesting to see what fruits GABS’s labours will produce and how long it will take for electric buses to come into power in South Africa.

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Focus on Transport

FOCUS on Transport and Logistics is one of the oldest and most respected transport and logistics publications in southern Africa.
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