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Global Demographic Changes Opening Doors for Electric Bus Makers

By Bill Moore

A new class of bus builders are responding to the growing need for cleaner, less-polluting public transit as the world becomes increasingly urbanized.

Superstorm Sandy struck one part of the continental United States that relies heavily on public transportation systems: buses, trains, subways. Yet, even though it caused the lost of an estimated 74 million transit trips, ridership nationwide was the second-highest recorded since 1957, rising 1.5 percent to 10.5 billion trips in 2012.

According to American Public Transportation Association president and CEO Michael Melaniphy, the steady increase in ridership can partly be attributed to high, volatile gasoline (petrol) prices and, interestingly, the nation's changing demographics. Reports USA Today, a 2012 report by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCLS) found "growing popularity of public transportation, especially among Baby Boomers, empty-nesters and Millennials, who total about 150 million people."

This is despite many transit services cutting back operations, raising or discussing raising fairs. The APTA estimates riders can save more than US$10,000 annually riding transit instead of driving a car; and it tends to be more hassle-free, though no system is perfect.

This steady growth also is fueling demand for cleaner buses and spurring economic activity both domestic and foreign electric bus makers and their component suppliers. Two recent examples:

Ballard, a supplier of hydrogen fuel cell systems announced just today (14 March 2013) that it will be providing power modules for 10 Van Hool NV buses to be deployed by Aberdeen Transit Authority in Scotland. Earlier they had similar announced orders for four more fuel cell buses, two destined for public service in Connecticut and two in southern California.

Balqon, a developer of electric dockyard mules used to move shipping containers, is forming a joint venture to supply its electric drive and battery systems to Sichuan Automobile Industry Co., Ltd (SAIG) for installation in its 22-foot buses.

Balqon CEO and president Balwinder Samra cited the "increased rate of urbanization in China" as the reason the government is actively seeing to reduce the air pollution caused by diesel-powered buses. According to a company press release SAIG is a subsidiary of Fulin Group, which owns and operates over 5,000 diesel inner city buses in West China . It recently received grants for the government to produce low emission vehicles.

Another Chinese automotive company with US ties to Berkshire Hathaway, also is finding fertile ground internationally for its k9 electric transit bus, most recently winning the bid to provide Long Beach, California with 10 of the zero emission, 12m (39 ft) units. In mid-December 2012, it would build the k9 in California. It is also cutting similar deals in Eastern Europe, forming a partnership with a Bulgarian manufacturer to provide buses to European transit operators. As of the end of 2012, it reportedly has orders for 1,200 units, including a sizable 700 unit from Israel's Dan Bus.

Of course, acquisitions of electric and fuel cell buses is an expensive proposition for any transit operators and typically can only be justified with the help of government incentives in the form of grants. In the case of the United Stats, $100 million has been award on a competitive basis through the Transit Investments for Greenhouse Gas and Energy Reduction program, which is part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to forty-three transit agencies, one of them San Antonio, which used part of its $5 million to acquire a South Carolina-built Proterra all-electric bus, joining systems operators in Austin, as well as Burbank, Pomona and Stockton in California, as well as cities in South Carolina, Florida and Washington state.

The cost of a electric bus is directly related to the size of the battery pack. If a way can be found to charge the bus during brief stops, the size of the pack could be reduced. Two approaches are being explored: inductive fast charging using ground mounted pads developed by Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST). McAllen, Texas will be among the first cities to test the concept. Other schemes include Bombardier's PRIMOVE wireless changing system that can be applied to both buses and light rail. Scania and Siemens just announced their collaboration on a pantograph-based system for trucks and buses similar to that used by Europe's high-speed electric trains and city trolleys.

This flurry of engineering activity is in response to irrepressible demographic changes identified by NCSL and others. More of us are migrating into the cities of the world in search of education and opportunity, and the demands we are placing on city services are only growing. Just buying more cheap diesel buses isn't a solution as China is coming to realize. This opens the door for innovation that firms like Proterra and Balqon and BYD are walking through. It may turn out that someday, the very first electric vehicle millions of people will ride won't be an electric car, but an electric bus, battery, fuel cell or wirelessly powered.

Times Article Viewed: 3309
Originally published: 14 Mar 2013

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