Electric buses get trial run in quest for sustainable transit

Burlington Electric Department General Manager Neale Lunderville addresses reporters Tuesday from the back of an electric bus being used as part of a pilot demonstration. Photo by Morgan True/VTDigger

BURLINGTON — Local and state officials joined with transit and education leaders Tuesday to urge residents to get on the bus.

Green Mountain Transit and the University of Vermont are trying out electric buses in partnership with the Burlington Electric Department and the Vermont Energy Investment Corp.

Standing on an electric bus that is giving free rides on GMT routes,
Mayor Miro Weinberger said electric buses are one way Burlington plans to become a “net zero” city over the next decade. That means it would generate from renewables all the energy it consumes for electricity, heat and transportation.

The 40-foot-long bus that holds 36 passengers is on loan from a California company called Build Your Dreams. The free rides on it will continue through Friday.

Burlington received national acclaim in 2014 when it became the first city in the country to get its energy entirely from renewable sources. “Net zero” would be a further step.

“It was not immediately obvious how we’ll get there,” Weinberger said. The city doesn’t own its own gas company or its own transportation network, he added.

A plan to pipe waste heat from the wood-burning McNeil Generating Station to a district heating system downtown could reduce Burlington’s greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by reducing reliance on natural gas for heating.

However, the transportation system in Burlington, and Vermont as a whole, is the largest consumer of fossil fuels and therefore the greatest emitter of greenhouse gases, officials said.

By partnering with GMT and the University of Vermont, Burlington hopes to help them add more electric vehicles to their fleets. The Burlington Electric Department is using state money, made available to meet renewable energy standards, to help both organizations try out electric buses.

An electric bus on loan from a California company is driving local routes for Green Mountain Transit as part of a pilot program. Photo by Morgan True/VTDigger

The vehicles could be charged overnight using power from the Burlington Electric Department, said BED General Manager Neale Lunderville. By charging during off-peak hours, the transportation providers would save money, he said.

“One bus is interesting. A whole fleet of buses, now that’s really something,” Lunderville said, speaking about where the pilot program could take the partnership in the future.

Jennifer Wallace-Brodeur, director of transportation for the Vermont Energy Investment Corp., said the idea combines two promising areas for reducing fossil fuel use: electric vehicles and public transportation.

Her company is providing technical expertise and research to help inform public transit agencies across the state that might be interested in following suit, she said.

GMT General Manager Mark Sousa said that when BED reached out to him, the transit provider was immediately interested. “We were all in,” he said.

Sousa said the electric bus, which is easy to spot with its white finish and decals saying it runs on electricity, will tackle every route GMT operates during the two-week pilot period. The trial run will inform future vehicle purchases, he said.

Transportation Secretary Joe Flynn, who joined local officials on the bus, said information gathered could prove valuable as his agency looks to help public transit across the state make a similar transition.

The group had hoped to test the electric bus in winter, Sousa said, but the plans had not come together in time. GMT also just recently purchased 12 diesel buses as part of its current 63-bus fleet.

The public transit agency may purchase four more buses and will consider electric vehicles as it tries to reach a total of 70 vehicles. GMT also has 60 smaller transportation vehicles as part of its rural network, Sousa said.

Currently, electric buses are significantly more expensive than the ones running on fossil fuels. Sousa said the electric buses being considered cost $670,000 to $800,000, while the diesel buses cost $445,000 to $460,000.

The electric buses save money over time, however, because electricity is cheaper than diesel and the maintenance costs are lower, Sousa said. BED officials said GMT would break even on an electric bus after 10 to 12 years.

Federal funding assumes that any bus purchased will remain on the road for at least 12 years, Sousa said.

Lunderville also said efforts to convert public transit systems to renewables are in their infancy. Meanwhile, battery and other technology continues to improve and become cheaper, meaning reaching that break-even point will take less and less time, he said.

Morgan True

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