The Upside and Challenges of Converting City Buses from Diesel to Electric

D.C.’s Circulator Bus — Photo by Mario Sessions on Unsplash

Knowing we need to reduce emissions as quickly as possible for our health and the health of the planet, many people are looking to changes we can make in transportation. When it comes to city buses, most are still running on diesel. Each bus has a life expectancy of 12 - 20 years. Replacing an entire fleet of buses in short order is a near-impossibility for many cash-strapped cities. Even though electric buses are cheaper to fuel and maintain, the upfront replacement cost is prohibitive.

Rather than replacing the buses, why not give them a makeover and turn them into electric vehicles? It’s faster, cheaper (~$260,000 per converted bus), and we would see the environmental benefits sooner. This makeover idea has been floating around cities for about a decade. Why hasn’t it seen mass adoption?

One answer is battery-life. Refueling an electric vehicle is not as simple as pulling up to the pump, filling the tank in a matter of minutes, and then heading out on the road. It takes hours to refuel an electric vehicle and a single charge doesn’t last all day. The battery challenge is even greater in cities where the temperatures drop below freezing for part of the year. In cold weather, batteries are even less efficient and need to be recharged even more frequently than in moderate temperatures.

Ironically, another challenge of diesel to electric conversion for buses is the recently passed infrastructure bill. While it increases investment in low- and zero-emissions buses by 500 percent, that money is for brand new electric buses, not for retrofitting diesel buses.

These conversion challenges makes it clear that more cities could convert their existing buses to low- and zero-emission vehicles if the appropriate battery technology existed. It would also help if our policies and budgets made retrofitting more attractive with incentives and financial assistance.

But hope isn’t lost. A year ago, we didn’t have a vaccine for COVID-19. Today the U.S. has administered nearly half a billion doses. When we collectively rally to a task, human ingenuity can achieve incredible feats. Let’s put our heads, hearts, and hands together, and figure out how to build batteries that last and give cities the financial help to power up.

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Award-winning author & writer—Product Dev — Biomimicry scientist — Podcaster. Runs on curiosity & joy. twitter.com/christanyc / instagram.com/christarosenyc

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Christa Avampato

Christa Avampato

Award-winning author & writer—Product Dev — Biomimicry scientist — Podcaster. Runs on curiosity & joy. twitter.com/christanyc / instagram.com/christarosenyc

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