Eric Doherty: Best electric-bus charging system is already overhead in Vancouver

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      Vancouver and Burnaby residents walk under the electric-bus charging system of the future every day without even noticing it. And Metro Vancouver’s transit agency, TransLink, has finally decided to start looking at the potential of the charging system they already own.

      TransLink has more than 1,700 fossil-fuel buses—powered by diesel, compressed gas, and gasoline. The benefits of shifting to electric buses include greatly reduced greenhouse-gas emissions, quieter streets, and cleaner air. Everyone wants electric buses—the question is, how quickly to make the switch?

      The transition to electric buses can be much quicker with dynamic charging (also trademarked as In Motion Charging), which uses trolleybus wires to charge electric buses as they drive. Transit agencies around the world are now using existing trolleybus wires and installing new wire for electric buses that also have battery capacity to operate for substantial distances off-wire.

      Europe has led the development of dynamic charging, and many European cities are using existing trolley-wire networks to charge buses that also serve neighbourhoods without trolley wires. Asian bus manufacturers are also now filling large orders for dynamic-charging buses. But most transit agencies in the U.S. and Canada are still stuck on static charging for electric buses.

      Static charging comes in two basic types, overnight and fast charging. Overnight charging works well for smaller buses that don’t travel far per day. Electric buses that stop and charge at fast chargers perform well on moderately demanding lines.

      But on busy routes, static-charging buses are so heavy that they cause expensive damage to roads—both people and batteries are heavy. Another problem is that fast charging slows down the turnaround time for buses, meaning that more buses and drivers are needed. Dynamic charging solves both of these problems, as the batteries are smaller and lighter, and the buses can run continuously.

      Dynamic charging is the best technology for large buses on busy routes. And as Metro Vancouver grows and shifts to sustainable transportation, more and more bus routes will have the ridership to justify dynamic charging. Every one of TransLink’s RapidBus lines is a good candidate.

      TransLink declined a request for an interview. In an emailed statement, TransLink clarified that it has not yet done any formal investigation of dynamic charging but “will be looking into this technology as part of overall bus replacement and Low Carbon Fleet solutions”.

      Vancouver has one of the continent's largest electric-bus fleets.
      Stephen Thomson

      Vancouver already has one of the largest electric-bus fleets in North America, with 262 conventional electric trolleybuses and four battery buses that use stationary charging undergoing testing. In 2019, TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond told the Daily Hive that TransLink would replace the trolleybus fleet with some kind of trolleybus in the mid-2020s.

      TransLink is planning to replace 635 of their fossil-fuel-powered buses with electric buses by 2030, which is less than 40 percent of the fleet (including HandyDART buses). TransLink has not yet set a firm date for ending fossil-fuel-bus purchases. In contrast, both Zurich, Switzerland, and Solengen, Germany, have already stopped buying fossil-fuel buses and are aiming for 100 percent electric fleets by 2030. Both Solingen and Zurich already have substantial fleets of electric buses with dynamic charging.

      Mexico City now has more than 240 new dynamic-charging trolleybuses operating or on order and plans to quickly expand the fleet to 500. Most can operate off-wire for up to 70 kilometers. Some of these electric buses will operate on a new bus rapid-transit corridor with continuous bus lanes and station platforms similar to light rail.

      Berlin, Germany, which stopped using conventional trolleybuses in 1973, is now planning to buy dynamic-charging electric buses and wire 50 to 65 percent of the routes. Dynamic charging isn’t an experimental technology: TransLink could start ordering hundreds of well-proven battery trolleybuses from multiple bus manufacturers within months. Other transit agencies have done the testing.

      The City of Vancouver’s recently approved Climate Emergency Plan includes a major acceleration of bus lanes and other measures to help TransLink buses move quicker and more reliably. Isn’t it time TransLink stepped up efforts to replace their polluting diesel and gas buses with the highest-performance electric buses available?

      The charging system is already up there ready to use, and the climate emergency can’t wait.