OCTA Prepares to Test Electric Buses as Conversion to Zero-Emission Fleet Proceeds

OCTA Prepares to Test Electric Buses as Conversion to Zero-Emission Fleet Proceeds
A new fleet of zero-emission buses awaits introduction in Orange County, Calif. (Courtesy of the Orange County Transportation Authority)
Jack Bradley

The Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) is preparing to test 10 plug-in electric buses as part of an eventual transformation to a zero-emission fleet.

OCTA currently operates more than 500 buses, most of which run on clean-burning compressed natural gas. In 2018, the California Air Resources Board set a goal for all public transit agencies to transition to zero-emission vehicles by 2040.

OCTA plans to convert to a 100-percent electric bus fleet by 2040 via its zero-emission bus (ZEB) rollout plan, which was submitted to the California Air Resources Board in June.

“Each of the buses costs just more than $1 million,” Eric Carpenter, an OCTA media relations specialist, told The Epoch Times.

OCTA contracted with New Flyer of America Inc. for the new buses. The $10.4 million expense will be paid for largely through grants.

OCTA is already trying out 10 hydrogen fuel-cell electric buses in addition to the 10 new battery plug-in buses. Factors such as operations, maintenance, and cost will help determine the path of Orange County’s public transportation and which of the technologies is best for the future.

“So both with the hydrogen fuel-cell buses and the plug-in electrics, OCTA wants to take the time to examine both technologies and see how they perform in real-life situations on Orange County’s streets. The primary benefit, of course, is that the only emissions that these buses produce is water from the tailpipe,” Carpenter said via email.

The hydrogen fuel-cell buses are currently being tested on routes in Orange County. The plug-in battery-electric buses are expected to begin operations in late 2021.

“The hydrogen fuel-cell buses began operating in January and so far have been performing ... about at the same level we would expect any new order of buses to perform. We would expect more optimum performance in the second year of operation. There have been some issues with highly sensitive hydrogen alarms that are also being worked out. But so far, we are encouraged,” Carpenter said.

“For a long time with the early versions of zero-emission technology, we saw that they simply didn’t perform to the same level as the existing compressed natural gas buses. Most notably, they didn’t have the same range capabilities.

“But with time, we are seeing that buses perform similarly. And now the state is mandating that all transit agencies move toward zero-emission bus fleets—100 percent by 2040.”

The 10 new battery plug-in buses are each the standard 40-foot length and can carry up to 76 passengers. The range of the buses is estimated at 200 miles between charges, which should last a full day. The buses will be charged nightly at OCTA’s base in Garden Grove.

“The approval this month was to negotiate final terms,” Carpenter said.

Five of the buses will be paid for with grants from the California Transportation Commission and Senate Bill 1, a $54 billion road repair act signed into law in 2017. Funds will also come through the Low Carbon Transit Operations Program administered by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans).

Five buses will operate on a new route that will run between Anaheim's Regional Transportation Intermodal Center (ARTIC) and the South Coast Metro in Santa Ana. The other five will operate throughout the rest of Orange County.

“The new Bravo! route, which will be implemented when the pilot program begins, will run from ARTIC in Anaheim to South Coast Metro in Santa Ana, along Main Street,” Carpenter said.

The initial 10 hydrogen fuel-cell buses began operating in January, with the opening of a hydrogen fueling station in Santa Ana. The investment into hydrogen fuel-cell buses and the station cost Orange County $22.9 million.

California Climate Investments, an initiative that uses billions of cap-and-trade dollars to reduce greenhouse emissions, funded more than half of the hydrogen fuel investment at $12.5 million.

Carpenter said other funding was included in OCTA’s fiscal year budget for 2020–2021. State programs that contributed include the Volkswagen Mitigation Trust (established to combat the company's excess emissions) and the Hybrid and Zero-Emission Truck and Bus Voucher Incentive Project (HVIP)—although the HVIP funds, estimated between $1 million and $2 million and designed to accelerate the development of cleaner vehicles, may not be available.

“Due to insufficient funding capacity throughout the state, HVIP funds may not be available. If it is determined that additional funds are needed to replace HVIP funds, staff will return with a recommendation to use Federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program funds to meet the funding need,” said Carpenter.

OCTA will begin purchasing more zero-emission buses in 2023, with an ongoing analysis of newly emerging technologies and sources of funding.