Converting to Non-Diesel Propulsion: The Benefits of Alternative Fuels

Converting to Non-Diesel Propulsion: The Benefits of Alternative Fuels

BUSRide conducted a panel discussion with some of the nation’s leading providers of non-diesel propulsion; discussing implementation plans, infrastructure and safety concerns; and funding for alternative propulsion:

Brian Nelson, Engineering Manager, ABC Companies

Nicolas Pocard, Director of Marketing, Ballard Power Systems

Brad Carson, Director of Sales & Marketing, Complete Coach Works

Angus Brown, Marketing Manager, Hydrogenics

Matt Horton, Chief Commercial Officer, Proterra


What steps should operators take to ensure a smooth transition when incorporating alternative propulsion vehicles into all-diesel fleets?

Brian Nelson: Companies and agencies must first know the role of their new propulsion. In this case, the role of the electric coach within their existing business. They may have some longer runs and shorter runs that would benefit from being able to recharge throughout the day.

Then they must make sure that there is infrastructure in place to support the new propulsion. Finally, we advise finding a strong supplier: a good partner for the roll-out and ongoing service and support.

More than anything, it is critical that you be familiar with the product you’re purchasing, and the training associated with it.

Nicolas Pocard: Operators should review their routes and operating processes to make sure they choose the right type of alternative propulsion vehicles. Today there are two types of electric vehicles available: battery electric and fuel cell electric buses. Depending on the route length, grade and schedule different type of electric buses will have to be considered.  Battery electric vehicles offer of good solution for shorter or commuter routes with limited operating hours where fuel cell electric buses with much more energy stored as hydrogen fuel enable longer routes and longer operating hours.

Climate may also affect the vehicle performances; in region with hot and cold climate, energy is required to heat or cool down the bus. Having a fuel cell power generator on board will ensure optimum vehicle performance regardless of the weather conditions.

Brad Carson: There are several factors operators should take into consideration to ensure a smooth transition when incorporating alternative fuel vehicles such as the availability of infrastructure, understanding applicable local/national regulations, costs associated with maintenance and operations, and driving range.

Alternative propulsion vehicle options include electric vehicles, hybrids, hydrogen fuel cells, hydrogen compressed and liquid natural gas, and liquid propane. Complete Coach Works (CCW) provides an abundance of information and tools to help operators make informed decisions on integrating alternative fuel vehicles into their fleets. CCW offers economical options to convert existing all-diesel fleets to alternative fuel vehicles through a retrofit or engine repower. CCW exclusively developed a proven technology called Zero Emission Propulsion System (ZEPS) that takes used, internal combustion engines and remanufactures them into like-new vehicles containing ZEPS all-electric drivetrain systems.

Angus Brown: Our experience has shown that several elements are important when considering a fuel cell solution for a bus fleet.

Through the project design stage operators need to engage local stakeholders (such as government, suppliers and infrastructure providers, fire and rescue services, etc.) to secure buy-in and establish a funding strategy. Environmental and other regulation considerations, costs, risks, and mitigations need to be understood, and strategic alliances will need to be established to support procurement and implementation. It should also be kept in mind that the R&D and risks which are faced by the OEM should also be recognized and a cooperative relationship rather than adversarial business-as-usual approach.

Operator should analyze their routes to determine the number of alternative vehicles needed, and appropriate resources such as drivers, tools, and mechanics to support the alternative fuel vehicle fleet;

The capabilities of potential suppliers need to be identified and their interest gauged before the procurement process begins and procurement rules are established. There are limited market players with ample experience and the financial backing required to support a fleet wide deployment. Having local supply requirements may reduce the amount and quality of viable suppliers.

During the procurement process the technical requirements to retrofit a fleet or develop a new fleet should be well documented and easy to articulate. Providing detailed requirements will reduce the perceived level of risk and allow suppliers to price products and services and plan resources more accurately. But do not limit or over-specify a particular technology solution as bidders should be able to use their experience to propose the best technology and infrastructure (or combination of technologies) in order to provide the best solution for a particular route and/or region.

At the onset of the deployment, operators should work closely with the technology supplier to understand the alternative fuel technology, especially on the operation, expectation, service and maintenance areas which could be different from the traditional all diesel fleet. Operator and technology supplier should also collaborate on evaluating the performance of the fleet to facilitate any performance tuning that is required to optimize the performance for the revenue routes.

Suppliers should be able to provide and support clients with strong project management pre and post project commissioning, as well as training and communications where and when needed to support ongoing diagnostics and maintenance.

Matt Horton: An important step for transit agencies is to begin to develop a master plan, especially as it relates to the infrastructure that they’re going to deploy to charge their vehicle fleet. Starting with the master plan will help the agency avoid unnecessary or redundant expenditures and will allow them to redeploy the infrastructure, and it would include scale as the fleet grows.

We recommend this work start with a sophisticated route simulation to make sure that the vehicles and the infrastructure are designed to meet the requirements of the route(s), and be able to provide a steady, consistent service for the agency’s riders.

What infrastructure considerations should operators make during the transition to alternative propulsion?

Nelson: Assume your electrification is going to grow, and plan for long-term goals around that.

It is important to work with local utility providers to determine your current consumption, as well as your future needs. Also work with them to see if there are tax benefits or grants available for electric propulsion.

Identify a reputable installer with experience on commercial-level operations. There is a real difference between consumer-level power demands versus commercial-level power demands.

Finally, prepare a phased approach which is scalable and as future-proof as it possibly can be. Again, talking to your energy provider is critical for this step.

Utilization analysis is key. Understand exactly where the buses need to go, how much energy they will consume, and when they’ll be back and plan your charging stations accordingly and in tandem with your energy provider.

Pocard: Fueling infrastructure should be considered carefully. Battery electric bus will require overnight charging infrastructure at the depot and often for longer routes, opportunity fast charging infrastructure will have to be installed along the line. Fuel cell electric buses require depot hydrogen fueling infrastructure very similar to CNG in terms of refueling process and dispensing equipment.

Scaling up of the infrastructure must be considered as operators are expected to convert their entire bus depot from internal combustion propulsion to electric. Therefore, comprehensive study should be completed to estimate all costs required to scale up charging/refueling infrastructure including off-site ones like power sub-stations and additional power infrastructure to deliver MWs at depot site.

Therefore, operators should consider and study both options; battery and fuel cell in their evaluation as either solution or a mix of both could be better depending on depot size, location and service conditions.

Carson: When procuring alternative fuel buses, it is important to consider long-term and smart infrastructure investments. Investments such as fueling stations or fast charging stations must be installed to accommodate alternative fuel vehicles. Also, facilities may need to be modified to allow for safe maintenance practices. In addition, there are city/state/federal regulations and installation requirements that operators must adhere to.

The Wireless Advanced Vehicle Electrification (WAVE) system is among the industry’s most significant developments in technological infrastructure. WAVE is the premiere developer of inductive charging solutions for medium and heavy-duty vehicles. Through an embedded charging pad placed in the pavement, WAVE technology transfers power through the air to a receiving pad mounted on the vehicle’s undercarriage.

The pad is sturdy enough to be run over all day without the damage, eye-sore, and risk associated with above ground charging equipment. High power wireless charging allows vehicles to effectively double their range, enabling customers to complete the rigorous duty cycles associated with around-the-clock operations. WAVE customer service is available to help operators plan and provides assistance with infrastructure inquiries.

Brown: The largest consideration for any fuel cell adopter is the fueling infrastructure required to support their fleet. Hydrogen fuel is capable of being produced 24/7 onsite at the refueling station using an electrolyzer or trucked in from a remote hydrogen production plant. On site hydrogen production requires more square footage compared to delivered hydrogen from offsite which only requires fueling stations, therefore operator should plan their fueling needs for their fleet according to their land availability. Additionally, the cost of water and electricity should also be taken into consideration when it comes to deciding if the operator should have an on-site hydrogen production infrastructure or purchasing hydrogen from an offsite hydrogen producer.

In general, the refueling infrastructure is growing quickly, and with increasing scale in distribution and generation come cost reductions. It is estimated that the U.S. will have 250 hydrogen stations operating by 2025. In California alone there are already 40 light duty hydrogen refueling stations in operation and plans to have 64 stations in operation by 2020. By 2020, the U.S. Department of Energy believes, the cost of hydrogen used in fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV) will be competitive on a cost-per-mile basis with the fuels used in other types of vehicles, such as the gasoline in hybrid-electric vehicles. This seems quite reasonable given the significant cost reductions Hydrogenics has already achieved in the last decade for our electrolyser and fuel cell products, and the economies of scales to be gained based on trending developments.

It is also important to note that hydrogen refueling stations avoid many of the dilemmas facing battery electric buses. Battery electric buses will require more charging points and will occupy charging points up to 80 times longer than a hydrogen refueling point. In addition, the public electricity grid needs to be able to support a huge increase of electric consumption to a number of locations and will likely require additional generation and infrastructure development to support the increased demand.

Horton: Agencies moving toward electric vehicles should coordinate with their utility provider on several key items including: ensuring that the utility can deliver the amount of energy to the site; that they have designed the layout of the site in a way that will be efficient for their operators; and that it’s designed in a way that will be scalable as the fleet grows.

It is also very important for the agency to engage with vendors to understand what changes in technology are coming, what future opportunities there will be in terms of charging technologies, and the amount of energy storage on the vehicles so that they can plan their systems to take advantage of the benefits of full electrification.

What safety concerns do alternative fuels present for operators previously accustomed to diesel vehicles?

Nelson: First, be sure you are working with a robust battery design, and that it is equipped with software featuring as many safety factors or precautionary measures as possible.

Next, the servicing of these vehicles will require very specific training on different procedures and precautions. High-voltage training is necessary. The good news is that there is already quite a bit of experience in transit fleets regarding high-voltage training.

Lastly is driver training. There are nuanced, subtle differences between all-electric and diesel vehicles. Make sure your drivers are aware of these differences, and comfortable with handling electric buses.

Pocard: There are two types of concerns; the ones for the vehicle and the ones for the infrastructures. Transition to electric propulsion which is same for either battery or fuel cell buses will require maintenance staff training on high voltage electric safety.

Fuel cell electric buses will require specific safety training for using hydrogen as a gaseous fuel which has lot of similarities to CNG fuel in regard to safety processes.

Maintenance facilities should also be upgraded to meet
safety requirements.

Carson: When operators are accustomed to one type of vehicle, safety concerns arise as they transition to alternative fuel vehicles. Proper training on new vehicle technologies is essential to operation and to reduce maintenance costs. CCW helps eliminate safety concerns by providing parts manuals and hands-on training at customer facilities to ensure transitions run smoothly.

Brown: Hydrogen has been proven to be as safe as or even safer than other flammable fuels such as diesel, gasoline or natural gas. Perhaps the biggest advantage hydrogen has over diesel is its gaseous form. Unlike liquid fuels, which puddle on the ground and remain a hazard until removed or until it evaporates naturally over a long period of time, hydrogen dissipates in a fraction of a second up into the atmosphere. As well, unlike fossil fuels, hydrogen is non-toxic and does not pose a threat to human or environmental health if released.

Furthermore, hydrogen fuel tanks are made from highly durable carbon fiber that have been extensively tested under extreme conditions. In the very unlikely scenario that a tank is punctured the systems are designed to safely release and ventilate the hydrogen fuel. Should a leak and subsequent ignition happen, the low radiant heat of a hydrogen fire in comparison to a gasoline fire will reduce any potential damage.

Lastly, to ensure that hydrogen is handled responsibly, the industry adheres to International Standardization safety standards and any releases or accidents are logged in government-supported database centers. The results show, for thousands of vehicle prototype, demos and current commercialization’s, an exemplarily safe track record.

Horton: Our customers all receive a significant amount of training from us when we deliver the vehicles, both to train operators on how to drive the vehicles as well as maintenance personnel on how to safely maintain them. It is important for the maintenance personnel to have high-voltage training to understand how the vehicles operate and it’s also important for Proterra as an OEM to design the vehicles in a way that reinforces safety for the maintenance teams and operators of the vehicle.

A properly designed modern electric vehicle should have all the safeguards necessary to keep operators from coming into contact with a dangerous, high voltage situation.

What are the best financing resources for agencies and operators seeking to adopt alternative fuel vehicles into their fleet?

Nelson: We are working to make electric coaches available in the next year. There are ongoing discussions regarding leasing versus purchasing – and even handling the power source and the coaches separately. Right now, we are trying to work in the best interests of the customer regardless of how they want to structure it, be it a purchase or lease.

Good financial partners, those who’ve been in the industry and understand it well, will begin to open up their coverage for electric vehicles. The right lenders will do their homework, they will understand the value of electric propulsion to a motorcoach and adjust their financial practices accordingly.

Pocard: There a number of federal and state resources available to assist transit agencies in their transition to zero emission vehicles such as LoNo grant from FTA or the Volkswagen mitigation funds in many states and HVIP voucher in California.

Carson: The best financing resources can be found through the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). The FTA is an agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation that aims to provide financial and technical assistance to local, public transit systems.

Many of the FTA’s programs, such as the Low-No Program, are a great opportunity for operators to shift to cleaner, more efficient vehicles with lower operating and repair costs.

CCW also recommends partnering with advocacy organizations that support funding for federal transit, such as the Bus Coalition or the American Public Transportation Association. As the only FTA approved remanufacturer, CCW’s friendly staff is always available to answer any questions about financing and will point operators in the right direction.

Brown: It’s highly dependent on the location of the agencies/operator.  Various local, state, and federal programs exist for low-carbon and zero-emission vehicle programs including transit vehicles. In the United States, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration (FTA) offers grant funds through their Low or No Emission (Low-No) Bus Program. The Program supports projects by local transit agencies to bring advanced bus technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells into service nationwide. Additionally, the DOE’s Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Program provide useful hydrogen-related funding opportunity information at the federal and state levels.

Other federal organizations, including the Department of Defense, also offer funding opportunities for hydrogen-related technologies. The Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Interagency Working Group website lists some of these funding opportunities. In addition, federal and state financial incentives, such as tax credits and grants, can help minimize the cost of hydrogen and fuel cell projects.

Horton: There are a variety of financing and funding sources available for the purchase of battery electric vehicles. The Federal Transit Administration manages several programs that are geared toward these kinds of vehicles. The most popular is the Low or No Emission Program Grants that has provided funding for lots of transit agencies to begin pilot programs in electric. We also are seeing that the Bus and Bus Facilities programs and other formula funds are now increasingly being used to pay for these vehicles.

In addition to grant programs at the federal and state level, one of the most exciting opportunities that our customers are taking advantage of is the opportunity to do battery leasing where the customers can purchase the vehicle without the battery and then lease the batteries directly from Proterra. That way their upfront cost mirrors what they’re used to paying for a conventional vehicle, and with the fuel and maintenance savings, they’re able to afford the ongoing lease payment in a way that makes their cashflows very similar to what they were used to with a diesel-powered vehicle.

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