downtown skyline of the city of Winnipeg
Winnipeg Transit is planning its journey to fleet electrification with a goal of 110 zero-emission buses in service by 2027.

Winnipeg Transit wants a fully zero-emission public transit fleet by 2040, taking advantage of Manitoba’s abundant hydropower and reaping the benefits of significant financial and environmental savings by transitioning

By 2027, the City of Winnipeg plans to have 110 battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles replacing standard diesel buses on the city’s streets. That transition represents around 15 percent of Winnipeg’s existing fleet, with each zero-emission bus (ZEB) eliminating 62 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions a year.

The first batch of Winnipeg’s ZEBs could be in service by 2023 or 2024, if all goes well, with more rolled out in coming years as the city expands the necessary infrastructure to support a total zero-emission transition.

Erin Cooke, project manager of Winnipeg Transit’s bus electrification program, told Electric Autonomy Canada in an interview that Winnipeg Transit’s phased rollout will give the city time to make the most effective shift to zero-emission buses.

“Once you start looking at the scales of hundreds of buses it becomes incredibly complicated, so taking the time to do this comprehensive rollout plan is going to be advantageous to scaling this technology up quickly,” she says.

Last year, the city applied to the $33-billion Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program to help fund the initial 110 bus purchases. If it is successful, the federal funding will cover up to 40 per cent of the costs for the zero-emission buses, the province of Manitoba will shoulder 30 per cent and the City of Winnipeg will cover the balance.

Cooke says it typically takes around a year for the application process to go through the necessary steps, so there could be a decision on that funding soon. “We’re still hopeful we might see the buses in 2023, but there’s been a lot of supply chain issues with bus manufacturers, so it could be early 2024,” she says.

Winnipeg city bus stationed at bus stop.
A Winnipeg Transit bus at a station on the Southwest Transitway. Photo: Winnipeg Transitway

Power delivery challenges

On paper, Winnipeg Transit’s transition to zero-emission buses makes sense given Manitoba’s abundant hydroelectric power. However, that the process is not without its challenges. The biggest, Cooke says, has been procuring charging infrastructure.

“We have the clean grid, we have no time-of-use charges, so it is easy from an operational standpoint to estimate what the costs are,” Cooke says.

“The challenge has been on the utility side and getting power to our existing garages. We need a new transmission line bought in to our garage and, on our side, we need a substation and all the other charging infrastructure. It’s a major project.”

Winnipeg may stand to benefit from the federal government’s 2022 budget, which has earmarked funds to assist with grid modernization projects. While federal support will likely not cover the full upgrades needed, it could help to keep costs manageable. But it will be some time before the application process is set up to apply for funding, which will require another potentially lengthy waiting period.

Hydrogen and battery mix

Cooke tells Electric Autonomy around two-thirds of the new buses will run on electric batteries and the remaining 30 per cent will be powered by hydrogen fuel cells, as this mix provides the best range and fuelling time options. Some electric buses are now capable of traveling up to 350 kilometres per charge, and charging fully within three hours. This would allow twice-daily deployment, which comes close to the 500-km range of diesel buses, but there are still routes in Winnipeg that require longer hauling power.

“About 30 per cent of our runs are really too long to run for a battery electric, and that’s where we see hydrogen being a viable option,” Cooke says.

Hydrogen fuel cell buses can be fuelled in 5-10 minutes and offer 500 km or more of range. However, hydrogen is an expensive fuel to import. As a result, Winnipeg Transit is also planning to run a pilot for an on-site hydrogen electrolyzer and dispenser to support the fuel cell vehicles.

“Manitoba has really low electricity costs and we have a clean electrical grid, so we can [produce] hydrogen on-site for almost a quarter of the cost of having it delivered right now,” Cooke says.

The pilot hydrogen fuel program will run in tandem with the first buses operating, and will produce around 500 kilograms of fuel per day.

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