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Energy & Environment

CEO: CATS Won’t Meet Charlotte's Zero Carbon Energy Goals Because Electric Buses Aren’t Ready

CATS currently has 56 hybrid diesel-electric buses like this one, but no battery electric buses yet.
David Boraks
CATS currently has 56 hybrid diesel-electric buses like this one, but no battery electric buses yet.

The city of Charlotte has established ambitious sustainability goals to become a low-carbon city by 2030. But the CEO of the Charlotte Area Transit System says he doesn’t think CATS will meet that deadline.

The city’s low-carbon plan is called the Strategic Energy Action Plan, or SEAP. City Council adopted SEAP in December 2018. It’s an ambitious goal to reduce Charlotte’s overall carbon emissions over the next three decades. Part of the plan includes a goal of zero carbon emissions from city-owned vehicles and buildings by 2030.

File photo of CATS CEO John Lewis
Credit David Boraks / WFAE
File photo of CATS CEO John Lewis

Electric buses are key to meeting that goal for CATS. But CEO John Lewis has said electric buses have two challenges: for one, the cost, and two, he doesn’t think electrics buses are reliable enough to handle the city’s routes.

"And just in general, depending on climate and operating environment, et cetera, what time of the year it is," Lewis said. "You’re going to get anywhere from 80 miles to a charge to upwards of 130 miles to a charge."

That’s not enough, Lewis said, to meet the average of 180 miles that CATS’s diesel buses drive every day. CATS has 304 buses in its fleet: 248 diesel and 56 hybrid electric buses. It’s true the distance that battery-powered electric buses can go varies a lot, depending on the model and environmental factors. John Boesel is the founder of CalStart, a nonprofit that consults on electric bus adoption.

"There is some concern about the range of battery electric buses," Boesel said. "I would say 180 miles is a significant daily route and would probably challenge some of the electric buses that are out there."

Boesel points out that some CATS routes likely have a lower mileage than that average, and electric buses could effectively serve those shorter routes. More recently, Lewis has suggested it would take a long time for manufacturers to deliver electric buses to CATS if he did put in an order.

"We’ve had conversations, whether it’s ProTerra, NewFly, or whoever," Lewis said. "If CATS comes to them and says, ‘Hey I need to buy 25 buses next year, can you handle that?’ and they’ve got an order from Los Angeles for 150 to 300, where do you think their priorities are going to be?"

John Walsh, senior vice president at the electric bus manufacturer Proterra, said that doesn't line up with his business.

"Our manufacturing processes are not set up that way," Walsh said. "We don’t build all one order at one time. We’ve never done it that way, nor would we. We have a mix of product going down the line, a mix of customers. It wouldn’t be first in, first out."

Lewis said it’s clear transit authorities will transition to electric buses in the future. But he pointed to other responsibilities CATS must meet in the near-term. His agency has about $63 million in federal money to buy new vehicles over the next five years, planned to be diesel buses.

That’s a limited pot of money, and with the purchase price of electric buses running 25-40% more expensive than diesel models, CATS can’t replace its entire fleet with that amount. The agency is also trying to figure out how to fund its “Envision My Ride” initiative, meant to reduce bus wait times and make routes more efficient. Lewis said the full cost for that program, between operating costs and new buses, is between $80 and $130 million, most of it unfunded.

In the past two years, CATS has applied for money from the state’s Volkswagen Settlement money to buy seven hybrid electric buses. It’s also applied for a competitive federal “Low-No Emissions” grant program that covers the cost premium of electric buses and charging stations, but hasn’t been awarded any money for previous applications.

The city’s SEAP goals don’t have funding attached to them to help CATS decarbonize its fleet. There’s also no way to enforce them. City Council Member Julie Eiselt said she’ll continue to push CATS to reduce its carbon footprint with both electric buses and improvements through Envision My Ride. But she says the SEAP goals are aspirational, and the reality of CATS’ operations means electric buses might not be feasible now.

"I do think we do have a fiduciary responsibility to not be spending money on technology that has not been proven for our market," Eiselt said.

She also said the City must come up with a new funding model if CATS is going to pay for both Envision My Ride and electric buses. In the meantime, Lewis isn’t swearing off electric buses entirely. He said CATS plans to order between two and five buses this year as part of a pilot. Funding for that pilot will come either from the "Low-No" federal program, or CATS' regular budget if the application isn't approved. Lewis said he plans to test them on routes starting as early as this summer, running through 2021.


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