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Despite City's Zero-Carbon Goal, CATS Plans Don't Include Electric Buses

Charlotte Area Transit System plans to convert its mostly diesel bus fleet to compressed natural gas beginning in two years.
David Boraks
Charlotte Area Transit System plans to convert its mostly diesel bus fleet to compressed natural gas beginning in two years.

Cities around the nation are phasing out heavily-polluting diesel buses. In many places, they're replacing them with zero-emissions electric buses.  But Charlotte Area Transportation System plans to stick with fossil fuels for now, and convert its 300-bus fleet to compressed natural gas. If the plan goes through, Charlotte won't meet the City Council's goal of eliminating carbon emissions by 2030.

Los Angeles, Philadelphia and other big transit systems are introducing electric buses. So are smaller systems in the Carolinas, like Greensboro and Raleigh. And Charlotte Douglas Airport is switching to electric shuttle buses.

CATS CEO John Lewis
CATS CEO John Lewis

That's helping reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and saving cities millions of dollars a year on fuel. But Charlotte Area Transit System CEO John Lewis said he's not convinced electric buses are ready.  

"Right now, the electric bus is a budding new growth industry, but they have not been able to prove to me, at least, that those vehicles can be utilized in a heavy duty transit environment," Lewis said. 

So Lewis and CATS are proposing to begin converting the fleet to compressed natural gas in two years. Lewis said it's cleaner than diesel. But environmentalists say it's still a fossil fuel. Shannon Binns, of Sustain Charlotte, says there are "legitimate concerns" over the limitations of electric buses, but he's worried Charlotte isn't planning ahead.  

"There's there's a lot of cities across the country, including L.A. and New York and San Francisco, who have made serious commitments to transitioning their bus fleets to 100 percent electricity. We haven't seen the city's 2030 zero carbon policy be translated yet into what that policy looks like for individual agencies like CATS," Binns said.


Converting to natural gas-powered buses move would be at odds with the Charlotte City Council's unanimous vote last December to approve the Sustainable Energy Action Plan.  That sets a goal of 2030 to end the use of fossil fuels in city buildings and vehicles. It's in line with similar goals by local governments around the world that are trying to fight climate change. 

[While electric buses have no tailpipe emissions, they're charged by electricity usually generated by burning fossil fuels. But that's still a fraction of the emissions of diesel or gas powered buses.]

The range of a fully charged bus can vary widely, from about 150 to 250 miles, depending on how flat or hilly a route is, the number of passengers, and air temperatures. CATS buses average 188 miles a day, with some less than that and some over 200, Lewis said.


Lewis is concerned that electric buses aren't reliable.

"I can't have a vehicle that I can't guarantee my customers are going to be able to get you from point A to Point B. The worst thing that can happen is a vehicle to be stuck somewhere Mecklenburg County because it ran out of power," Lewis said.

Lewis cites the city of Asheville as an example. Asheville got its first electric buses this year, but is holding off on more purchases. 

Assistant transit director Jessica Morriss said buses aren't going as far as hoped on a single charge, because of Asheville's mountainous terrain and other factors.

"I'm still expecting that in the future in the semi-near future we'll likely purchase additional vehicles. But … for Asheville we've decided to just hold off a little bit longer until things like range and battery life can be improved," Morriss said.


Despite examples like Asheville, environmental groups in Charlotte are pushing back against Lewis's plan.  In a July 3 letter to city manager Marcus Jones, a dozen environmental leaders wrote that while compressed natural gas does burn cleaner than diesel, it "is still a fossil fuel and leaves a carbon footprint."

They also worry that natural gas could rise in price and become obsolete in the near future. 

A week after that letter, city council member Dimple Ajmera arranged a private meeting between the city manager and several signers, including Binns, Terry Lansdell of the Mecklenburg County Air Quality Commission and June Blotnick of Clean Air Carolina. 

"They laid out all the facts, what other cities are doing, how it is not just environmentally friendly but is also cost effective," Ajmera said. "And they laid out an option where you could just lease an electric bus, instead of buying it."  

Ajmera said Jones repeated Lewis's argument, that electric buses are not ready for a city like Charlotte. But the manager also suggested doing a pilot project with a small number of electric buses. 

In fact, CATS had already applied for a federal grant for the trial. But the city learned last week(JUL26) that its application was rejected. 


It takes a dozen years to replace all of CATS' buses. For now, there are no plans for electric ones. The system will add 19 diesel buses this year and plans to order 22 more (diesels) to be delivered in 2020.  In 2021, Lewis plans to buy 14 compressed natural gas, or CNG buses, and installing fueling stations. From there on out, it would be CNG, until Lewis feels comfortable with electrics. 

"So we're gonna go with CNG in the short term - and compressed natural gas does not in any means tie us to that technology in the long term. Once the Electric Bus industry solves that reliability issue, we can turn on a dime," Lewis said.

The 2019 and 2020 purchases need no additional approvals. But the switch to CNG will require OKs later this year or early next year from both the city council and the Metropolitan Transit Commission, which oversees CATS. 

Dimple Ajmera
Dimple Ajmera


Ajmera said she's concerned that if the city invests in CNG buses now, it will put off the transition to electric and fail to meet goals of the Strategic Energy Action Plan, or SEAP. She wants a side-by-side comparison of gas versus electric. 

"I would like us to make some policy decisions around our fleet. Because ultimately if we don't end up making some of those decisions, it's going to really put us not in a very good position for us to meet our 2030 SEAP goals," she said.

But Ajmera stopped short of saying she would call for a council resolution to require electric buses.   

June Blotnick of Clean Air Carolina said Lewis seems to favor natural gas because he's familiar with the technology. She hopes there's still time to change his mind. 

"One of the main issues in transitioning to an electric fleet is John Lewis's experience with natural gas buses in former jobs that he's been in and his concerns about the technology," Blotnick said. 

Lewis led the switch from diesel to natural gas buses in Orlando, Florida, the system he ran before coming to Charlotte in 2015.  But even Orlando is now beginning the switch to electric - starting with its free downtown buses. 


As city leaders consider switching to gas or electric, upfront costs also could be an issue. CATS currently spends about 475,000 dollars for a diesel bus. Lewis says CNG buses would cost 550,000 each, plus the cost of fueling stations. Electric buses can cost 800,000 dollars or more, plus the cost of charging stations. But with electric, the higher upfront cost is offset by eliminating the cost of fuel.   

Electric bus advocates say another option for CATS would be to introduce electric buses on a few routes, and expand later. 

Ryan Popple is CEO of Proterra, a leading manufacturer of electric buses. He admitted electric buses don't work everywhere now, but says: "I think there's broad confidence in the industry that even some of the longer routes, or the hardest last 5 percent of the routes, the technology will catch up to that fairly quickly."

The City Council is scheduled to get an update on the Strategic Energy Action Plan at its Aug. 26 meeting.

David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.