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WFAE reporter David Boraks explores how the way we live influences climate change and its impact across the Carolinas. You also can read additional national and international climate news.

CATS puts electric buses on the road, plots how to convert fleet

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David Boraks
City and county officials celebrated the start of Charlotte Area Transit System's electric bus trial Friday at the city bus garage off South Tryon Street.

Charlotte Area Transit System now has most of its 18 new electric buses on city roads as part of an 18-month trial. The head of CATS says he'll outline plans next week for replacing the entire fleet.

In an Earth Day ceremony at the city bus garage Friday, city and county leaders cheered the launch of the pilot program, which began with two buses in March. Twelve of the 18 new buses from Gillig and New Flyer are now in service. The rest should be on the road soon.

The city is spending $23 million on the trial, including a $3.7 million federal grant. A big question is how CATS will replace the rest of its 300 or so buses.

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David Boraks
CATS CEO John Lewis showed off one of 10 new bus charging stations at the city bus garage.

"In our next five-year budget, we have funded somewhere between 20 and 25 vehicles each year to be replaced," CATS' CEO John Lewis said Friday. "The 18-month pilot gives us an opportunity to evaluate the performance of the vehicle in all seasons. And then at the end of that, we'll have enough data to make an informed decision on how we transition with the electrification of our entire fleet."

Converting the entire fleet will take a decade or more and cost millions of dollars. Lewis said he'll unveil his spending plans at the Metropolitan Transit Commission meeting Wednesday.

Switching to electric buses is part of the city's effort to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. Three years ago, the city council adopted a Strategic Energy Action Plan that calls for shifting to 100% zero-carbon energy in municipal buildings and vehicles by 2030.

And the plan asks citizens, companies and other private sector organizations to adopt similar changes to make Charlotte a "low-carbon" city by 2050. That means cutting per-person carbon emissions to 2 tons per year across the city. In 2019, it was 11 tons.

City officials acknowledge that the electric bus project is just a start. "We are getting started and we have a long way to go," said council member Dimple Ajmera, who chairs the council's environment committee. "I recognize the goal that we have to go carbon-free for our entire city operations by 2030, it is a bold goal. But it's not unattainable," she said.

The 18 electric buses are running first on routes in what the city calls its "Corridors of Opportunity" in west, north and east Charlotte. Officials say the idea is to bring immediate transit and health benefits to areas with lower incomes and more people of color.

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David Boraks
Brian Savoy of Duke Energy and Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles rode on one of the city's new electric buses Friday.

Charlotte has hired a Duke Energy subsidiary called eTransEnergy to help with the conversion to electric buses.

"We're engaged to help the city and CATS provide the infrastructure for charging and the buses, to drive their electrification of the fleet. It's a business relationship," said Brian Savoy, Duke's chief strategy and commercial officer.

Duke has helped the city apply for federal grants and bought the city's electric bus purchases, which it resold to CATS at cost, he said. "And then we are supporting the operations of those buses on an annual basis," he said.

Duke also is helping the city build its network of bus charging stations, which it sells to the city at a profit. And it gathers all the data about the buses and shares that with CATS, Savoy said.

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