BC Transit starts its journey to zero-emission buses in Victoria
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Aug 15, 2023
Emma Jarratt

Electric Autonomy visits Victoria Regional Transit, jumping off point for BC Transit’s province-wide fleet electrification plan, with delivery of its first 10 battery-electric buses just weeks away

BC Transit expects delivery this fall of 10 Proterra battery-electric buses for deployment in Victoria. This demonstration bus has been in use since last December. Photo: BC Transit

Electric Autonomy visits Victoria Regional Transit, jumping off point for BC Transit’s province-wide fleet electrification plan, with delivery of its first 10 battery-electric buses just weeks away

Anchored into the pavement against a high concrete retaining wall in central Victoria, with traffic buzzing along an elevated section of Douglas St. several metres above, is a row of 10 EV charging stations.

The chargers, installed earlier in the year, are at the back end of the Victoria Regional Transit System’s Gorge Road East depot. They represent years of work by BC Transit, the provincial crown corporation that coordinates public transit in B.C. outside Greater Vancouver. They — and the 10 Proterra battery-electric buses slated to use them when they are delivered this fall — are also the first tangible representations of the transit body’s fleet electrification efforts and, perhaps, the future of public transit in the province.

“A couple of years ago, we engaged a consultant to complete some energy modelling for all of our systems across B.C. to see [based on the technology available and some assumptions] how many buses in each fleet could be replaced with electric,” says Chad Berndt, director of the electrification program at BC Transit, in an interview with Electric Autonomy.

“What we found was … that in Victoria we could replace 30 per cent of the fleet with electric everything. But if we got layover charging or other things, we could get to 100 per cent.”

With the findings of the report in hand, Berndt and Ryan Drake, deployment manager for BC Transit’s electrification program, began the process of preparing for and procuring electric buses.

Earlier this summer, Electric Autonomy went behind the scenes to understand the work, learnings and challenges that have gone into BC Transit’s fleet transition to date.

The following is a case study of its approach.

[Editor’s Note: On August 7, Proterra filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the U.S. In a statement, BC Transit said it would monitor the situation and that the 10 buses “are still planned to arrive in Victoria this fall.”]

BC Transit’s unique operations

It’s been a delicate and complex journey to electrification at BC Transit.

In 2019, the corporation released a 10-year strategy that called for the replacement of 1,200 diesel buses with electric. However, to get to that target, Berndt and Drake need to balance the competing goals of reducing fleet GHG emissions, testing new technologies and not interrupting any service to riders.

“The first step was figuring out where we could start taking action,” says Drake.

“We really had to look at all those different aspects and then be able to focus. Heavy-duty buses are one of our largest contributors for GHG emissions and were the most mature market space for us to start approaching.”

Even then, BC Transit’s province-wide mandate presented added challenges. While the corporation shares operational oversight of Victoria Transit with the Victoria Regional Transit Commission, it operates a total of 57 transit systems serving more than 130 communities. What this means is that over the course of their lifespan, BC Transit buses are often deployed in different jurisdictions.

For example, an electric bus that starts its life in Victoria may end its life in Kelowna after spending a few years working in Nanaimo or Prince George. All of these jurisdictions represent vastly different climates and topographies for the e-buses to deal with.

“We need to really have that provincial view of our fleet when we’re specifying how we set up the buses,” says Drake.

Sizing electric buses for operation

So, how does one spec electric buses and charging infrastructure in a way that makes a strong business case, but accounts for the buses operating elsewhere (requiring infrastructure in a different home base) and for technology developing and improving?

Not easily.

“We looked at trying to do appropriate level of future-proofing. So, sizing for what our needs are maybe five or 10 years from now,” says Berndt.

“In some ways, you can’t create a plan for 10 or 15 years from now, because the solutions are going to be different. We have to create enough flexibility in the plans that we can pivot by making the best assumptions we can.”

The most complex and cost-intensive aspect of future-proofing an electric fleet is the charging infrastructure.

Drake and Berndt don’t want BC Transit to underestimate power needs at depots. Tearing up concrete parking lots again and again is not fun or cost-effective.

“That energy analysis that started out at the program is really key to making sure that we can secure the power that we need,” says Drake.

“We’ve been, since the beginning of the program, really close with BC Hydro and with Fortis (a utility provider in other areas of the province) to make sure that our plans can be supported.”

Proterra is providing a turnkey solution to BC Transit by supplying buses and chargers. Through guidance from Proterra as well as the local utility, Drake and Berndt know the 10 chargers at the Gorge Rd. depot will support the first wave of 10 electric buses and, eventually, a fully electric fleet.

“Our chargers will charge on average 90 kilowatts, per bus. But we’re sizing the power distribution system to be able to do 120-180 kW,” says Berndt.

Leveraging carbon credits

Despite having to spend more upfront to build an oversized charging system that a fleet can grow into (but ultimately saving money by not having to keep doing upgrades down the line), there is an opportunity in the interim for the chargers to generate income.

Carbon credits (federal and provincial, in B.C.) are a system that allows a faster return on charging infrastructure. Essentially, a charging network owner (BC Transit, in this case) is able to earn a credit on each of its chargers. The credit is sold on an open market to a higher emitting company that needs to purchase credits to offset its footprint. The money may either count as pure profit or be resown into expanding BC Transit’s charging network.

“They’re certainly part of our business cases. To go forward and say, ‘This is the potential for us to generate these credits,’ it really is kind of a risk reduction,” says Berndt. “Capital costs do need to be repaid and that’s one option that helps…or makes the economic case to move forward.”

Credits may also be generated by electric buses, but only once they start operating.

“It’s true of all electric vehicles, you shift operating costs into capital. You’re pre-buying the fuel on that battery. But the credits are interesting. They don’t really exist until they exist and until you actually generate them and sell them,” says Berndt.

An EV state of mind

While Berndt wrestles with the balance sheet for the electrification program, Drake is now focussing on making sure BC Transit’s move to electrification is an organizational-wide experience.

What that entails is re-training drivers and vehicle maintenance workers as well as working with subcontractors throughout the province to make sure they understand and are supportive of the move to zero-emission vehicles.

“It’s just really bringing and shifting people from that fear of the unknown into an informed state. Giving them the information and tools as those questions come up,” says Drake.

“We have to look at all those people — what their role is — and how does that role shift to accommodate [EVs]? Or, do we need to create new roles to deal with charging?”

Starting with 10 buses will afford BC Transit time (a rare gift in public transportation) to adjust operations, to implement changes in employees’ responsibilities or to add new jobs, if needed, before a full fleet transition.

So far, the employees’ response to Victoria Transit’s single demonstration electric bus, which was delivered last December, has been positive. Operators have test driven it, mechanics have had a chance to service it, IT has had a chance to explore the charging side and management now has concrete data on the vehicle’s performance. But the key to it all has been building in time to adjust to the new normal, explain Drake and Berndt.

“This is what we need to do all the time — trying to have a very upfront approach to changing slowly, in very controlled ways, as we build confidence” says Drake.

Hitting the road

With chargers standing ready, buses being made and a workforce anticipating a new frontier, Victoria Transit is ready for the 10 electric buses to arrive. And, once they do, Victoria Transit is looking forward to sharing its experience with other transit agencies beyond the province.

“One of the things that I really appreciate about being in transit is we have the Zero-Emission Bus Resource Alliance. It’s an open forum between all transit agencies [in Canada] of what’s coming up or what’s going on,” says Drake.

“What an incredible kind of industry to work in. There’s so much openness and we don’t have to figure it all out on our own.”

While Victoria is starting with just 10 electric buses this fall, the duo expect that number will increase rapidly.

“We have a lot of buses that need to be replaced each year,” says Berndt.

“This is the clearest path to creating a more sustainable public transit system by utilizing low-cost renewable green electricity to support public transportation. What does the future of public transit look like? I think [electrification] represents the future of public transit.”

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