From cost to timeline: here's a reality check on the electrification of London's bus fleet

London's transit agency could soon be facing a mammoth undertaking if the city chooses to electrify its bus fleet. The agency's board asked staff to study the project's feasibility at a meeting Wednesday night. 

LTC unanimously approves a feasibility study into the mayor's vision of an electric fleet

(Dave Chidley/CBC)

London's transit agency could soon be tasked with a mammoth undertaking if the city chooses to electrify its bus fleet, essentially converting the city's 215 diesel buses to vehicles that cost almost twice as much. 

The board of the London Transit Commission (LTC)  approved a study into the project's feasibility at a meeting Wednesday night. 

This comes after mayor Ed Holder announced his plan to make London the first major city in Canada to have a zero-emissions public transit bus fleet at his annual State of the City speech last Wednesday.

Holder said the move would save the city more than $7-million in annual fuel costs. But LTC chair and ward six councillor, Phil Squire, says those numbers aren't coming from the commission. 

"Until we do an actual overview...its really hard to throw those numbers out," Squire told CBC News. He believes electric vehicles should be on the city's agenda but says there is good reason to not rush into the project. 

"You often don't want to be the first to do something when it comes to new technology. So I want to keep a close eye on what development there is in the technology," he said. 
An electric bus is shown at the Nova Bus production plant in St. Eustache, Que., on March 7, 2012. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Electric bus testing has already begun in cities across the country. In Brampton and York Region, there is a pilot project coordinated by the Canadian Urban Transit Research and Innovation Consortium (CUTRIC), a private non-profit group.

"We need to start making some decisions, but they don't have to be, in 2020, blind decisions. We have more than enough data, more than enough pilots that's available," the agency's chief executive officer, Josipa Petrunic, said. 

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So what could it cost? 

One of the biggest challenges when it comes to adopting the technology is the significant up-front costs, Petrunic said. 

Earlier this month Guelph secured funding to purchase 65 new electric vehicles and on-route stations to charge them at a total cost of $177 million.
The city of Guelph secured provincial and federal funding for their green transit projects. (Infrastructure Canada)

A report discussed at the LTC meeting Wednesday night estimates the possible cost of the vehicles at 185% more than the current diesel buses.

Petrunic ballparks the cost of an electric bus at around $1 million compared to the $600,000 price tag diesel vehicles typically carry. 

Then, there's the cost of charging the fleet. City staff break it down this way:

  • In-depot chargers estimated at $130,000 per unit (2:1 bus ratio)
  • Opportunity Chargers estimated at $1.5 million (10:1 bus ratio)

How much could it save?

That math will be front and centre of any a feasibility study. Petrunic said there may need to be an overhaul of the budgeting system when it comes to capital cost versus operating cost. The buses carry a hefty price tag but the cheaper cost of hydropower compared to diesel may be able to offset that eventually. 

Furthermore, there is potential for collaboration with the city-owned London Hydro. Squires says he has had a conversation with the manager of that agency and is confident there is potential for "synergy" in any electrification plan. 

How much could it change current routes?

Another challenge, Petrunic says, is that these vehicles may need to be charged mid-route. That would require either installing charging stations along the route, which raises the issue of needing to build on what might be private property. 

Other cities were able to address this through collaboration, she explains. 

How different is the service?

Petrunic argues that electric buses aren't just a cleaner technology; they also provide a better service. 

"It's a smoother, cleaner, quieter ride, drivers like them better. They're more sophisticated, and they're becoming increasingly more connected which means potentially Wi-Fi on board in the future. The vehicles themselves are connected to cloud analytics," she said.  

How much of an environmental impact will it make?

London's current buses are responsible for about one per cent of the city's total greenhouse gas emissions, but Petrunic said it's about more than the buses themselves. 

"The real motivator should be to get these charging systems out the door so that they can electrify your buses, your cement trucks, your garbage trucks, your municipal vehicles of any sort, shuttles, coach buses," she explained. 

The technology could power similar heavy-duty vehicles and the city may be able to rent out the charging infrastructure to private fleets. 

When could it happen?

Not before 2040, Petrunic said. The first step now is a feasibility study, which she estimates will take about three months. If council chooses to go ahead, they will need to secure the funding. But most importantly, the buses are typically purchased when the current diesel buses reaches their end-of-life. Petrunic said much of London's fleet is less than five years old and has a life cycle of 12 to 14 years. 

Guelph, with its fleet less than half the size of London's, and funding already secured, has set a deadline of 2035 to be fully electric. 

Overall, there is a remarkable number of factors to weigh when undertaking an overhaul of this size. There is much catching up to be done if the mayor's vision to be Canada's first is realized but Petrunic, for one, believes its a fit for London. 

"People love living there. People love working there. It has all the accoutrements of a city that should be clean and green and it has all the intellectual brains in its backyard," she said. "Somebody has got to take that position. Otherwise, how are we going to get to climate action. It's is never going to happen if we're all sheep."