Summit County considering replacing diesel fleet with all-electric buses
Summit County is kicking the tires on electric buses. At the county commissioner’s work session this week, officials started taking a serious look at replacing the aging Summit Stage diesel fleet with the expensive, yet incredibly efficient, electric coaches.
“Our fleet is in need of replacement,” Summit Stage transit director Curtis Garner told the commissioners. “For heavy diesel buses, the useful life is 12 years or 500k miles. Most of our buses have hit either one of those limits, or both.”
Garner said that 18 of the fleet’s 26 diesel buses need to be replaced. Several of those buses have already been “rehabbed” with fresh parts, adding a few hundred thousand miles. However, trying to squeeze any more life out of these old buses could be dangerous, as their chassis can’t handle much more strain beyond their mechanical life.
The discussion followed Breckenridge’s recent month-long demo of an electric bus on its busiest route back in March and April. Assistant county manager Thad Noll said that the county had been considering electric buses for a while, but the technology had not advanced far enough to make them useful or efficient in the mountains.
But now, the tech has advanced to the point where electric buses are seeing regular use in bus fleets across the country. Proterra, the California-based tech company that demoed its electric bus in Breckenridge, broke a world record last year with an electric bus that traveled over 1,100 miles off a single 5-hour charge. In the mountains, that range would be significantly reduced, but would still be up to six to 10 times more energy efficient than diesel buses.
Proterra has buses operating for several public transit systems across the country, including at the mountain resort town of Park City, Utah. The company just finalized an order with the Chicago Transit Authority for 20 buses at $32 million.
The cost might still be the sticking point for replacing diesel with electric.
“With grant funding from the Federal Transit Authority, the cost to us for a new diesel bus is $1 million to $2 million,” Garner said. “If we go down the electric bus route, it’s more like $8 million to $9 million. So there’s a significant investment going electric versus diesel. It’s not as high as it used to be, but it’s still quite high.”
However, Garner pointed out that the costs could be recouped over the long term from efficiency. For example, in Park City the average fuel cost to run a diesel bus is 51 cents per mile. For electric buses, the average electricity cost there is 20 cents a mile. Costs might also be saved on maintenance.
“We do know in general, an electric bus has less maintenance requirements than a diesel bus,” Noll told the commissioners. “There’s less moving parts, less heat generated, and all those things that really wear engines out don’t exist on the electric bus.”
Another consideration is the fact that Colorado still gets most of its electricity from coal, meaning electric buses would not be as green as they seem. However, Xcel energy has been working on a comprehensive plan to shift at least 55 percent of energy production to renewable sources.
The county would also need to build the infrastructure required to charge and support the buses, as well as electric cars as they become more popular. County senior planner Kate Berg said there are a number of public and private proposals to build up electric charging infrastructure.
Given the range of considerations and unknown variables that need to be sorted through, the county will need to have more discussions on the topic before making such a huge investment. But Commissioner Dan Gibbs, who sits on the Summit Stage board, was optimistic we will see electric buses running up and down Highway 9 or along Interstate 70 in our future.
“I think our community wants to see electric buses in the county, to reduce both air and noise pollution,” Gibbs said. “I think those factors alone make it important that we move very aggressively and make it happen. But as we do that, we need to get more information from communities who have already adopted the tech and make the right decisions at the right time for us. “
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