OC Transpo electric transit bus
The City of Ottawa is officially moving ahead with its zero-emissions bus program, including the purchase of 350 electric buses by 2027. Photo: OC Transpo

This month Ottawa City Council approved the $974 million budget needed to procure 350 electric buses by 2027

The City of Ottawa is officially moving ahead with its zero-emissions bus program, including the purchase of 350 electric buses by 2027.

Councillors voted 19 to 6 in favour of accepting the budget that will see the city phase in the e-buses as its diesel buses reach the end of their life cycle.

“Eighty-six thousand, seven hundred and fifty tonnes of carbon dioxide — that’s how much our bus fleet emitted in 2022. That’s about 101 tonnes per year, per bus…It’s really hard to make the case that we should continue with diesel for much longer in our city,” said Councillor Glen Glower during the council meeting on Wednesday.

The electrification plan for OC Transpo’s bus fleet is part of the city’s Energy Evolution Strategy. The goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from municipal operations by 100 per cent by 2040.

The zero-emissions buses have a price tag of almost a billion dollars. Of that, $653 million will go to buses, $214 million to charging infrastructure and $107 million to “transition costs.” The latter expenditure includes building a new vehicle storage facility and upgrade two existing ones.

Last month, the city secured $350 million through Infrastructure Canada’s Zero Emissions Transit Fund (INFC) to help fund the program. During a city council meeting, city staff called the funding the “final piece” before seeking approval from the council to buy the first set of electric buses.

Last August, council approved a loan of up to $380 million with the Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB). The loan is to be repaid using savings from fuel and maintenance costs.  

Starting slow with fewer buses

To build its electric bus fleet, Ottawa will purchase 26 40-foot electric buses this year. By 2036, OC Transpo wants to have a 100 per cent zero-emission bus fleet.

But the decision by council to move forward with the e-bus program comes after a succession of delays.

The idea for the zero-emission bus program first emerged in June 2021. City council at that time directed staff to purchase only zero-emission buses for all future transit. The conditions were that the e-buses must meet the city’s operational needs and financing could be arranged with INFC and CIB.

Ottawa was originally planning to buy 450 zero-emission electric buses by 2027. But due to costs, delays in funding applications and shorter timeframes, are reducing the scope to 350 e-buses.

OC Transpo anticipated adopting electric buses at a more rapid pace, starting with 74 battery-electric buses in 2023.

However those plans were halted last year per the city auditor general, Nathalie Gougeon’s, recommendation. Gougeon cited OC Transpo’s e-bus pilot, saying more data around the buses’ range and cold-weather performance was needed.

Then a January 2023 motion saw first-term councillors (elected in October 2022) get extra time to consider the proposal. This provided them the opportunity to ask questions to staff about transforming OC Transpo’s fleet during a transit commission meeting at the end of the month.

Following the auditor general’s recommendations, OC Transpo decide scale back its fleet electrification plans.

Now the initial phase is getting the first 26 40-foot electric buses into service this year. The city will then gradually increase the number of e-buses — adding 77 in 2025, 110 in 2026 and 137 by the end of 2026.

Gougeon informed council on Wednesday that the audit committee now has no concerns about moving forward with the procurement of the e-buses.

Four-bus pilot project

In February 2022, OC Transpo launched a pilot project with four 36-seater New Flyer e-buses.

Renée Amilcar, the agency’s general manager told the council that the pilot has been running continuously for a year and that the buses have so far travelled more than 220,000 kilometres, with over 50,000 kilometres per bus.

During the winter months, the results of the e-buses were “very good” says Amilcar. “The battery is fairly autonomous. It [performed] much more than expected.”

The buses have a range between 280 and 350 kilometres and fully charge in four hours. In cold temperatures, the range sits at the lower end but still meets all operating requirements, says OC Transpo.

Concerns around the pilot

During the council meeting, some councillors still expressed reservations about the results of the pilot and supporting the e-bus program.

“The four buses are just over a year old and have been in service for just one winter — far from truly simulating management of a larger fleet from an operations and maintenance data standpoint,” said Councillor Wilson Lo.

He adds that many of the expected outcomes of the e-buses are riding on assumptions made by staff and manufacturers. These include that each bus will achieve 55,000 km per year, have a lifespan of 15 years and have realized cost savings benefits.

“You know what they say about assuming. It doesn’t make for sound financial decisions,” says Lo.

Councillor Clarke Kelly agreed that the pilot project was too short and limited in scope to merit a full-scale adoption of electric buses into OC Transpo’s fleet.

“There are a lot of new councillors around this table. This council’s time exploring this particular initiative has really been limited to the last week. I know that that has made some of my colleagues nervous, along with me,” said Kelly. “I am concerned that the primary driver behind this timeline is access to these particular funds and that this council has not had enough input to the process.”

Councillor Shawn Menard, however, disagreed.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a more scrutinized purchase of buses in the city’s history,” said Menard.

From pilot testing to audit reports to extensive risk mitigation review and assessments and partnerships with different levels of government: “[City staff] didn’t just want to jump into this, so they did their homework,” said Menard.

Councillor Cathy Curry was also in favour of the program adding, “I’m very confident that this is the right thing to do.”

Next steps

Looking to the future, Councillor David Hill suggested that staff follow certain guidelines to ensure public transparency and the flexibility to alter any part of the zero-emission bus program.

Hill’s three proposals included that :

  • Staff report to the transit commission annually on “the use, reliability and cost savings of the city’s fleet of zero-emission buses with recommendations as to whether the plan council has approved should be maintained or adjusted”;
  • Staff provide explanatory information “in the context of the annual capital budget approval process to outline the numbers and types of buses that are planned for acquisition in the upcoming year”; and
  • Staff continue to review industry trends, available technologies and energy supply options for zero-emissions buses and “report on any many changes in the marketplace, along with recommendations as to whether the plan council has approved should be revised.”

Staff from the Finance Services Department and Transit Services Department will now move forward with the plans of purchasing the buses.

Another auditor general’s report on the funding mechanisms and agreements of the zero-emission bus program is scheduled for Feb. 17.

Public transit authorities are taking action to electrify city bus fleets across Canada