Electric bus developments in Europe
Before getting into the main theme of this article, it was amazing to read a recent report by IDTechEx, a respected research organization which has offices on both sides of the Atlantic. Over here, it is based in the beautiful old university city of Cambridge.
They predicted that the electric bus battery market will overtake the consumer electronics sector by 2020. In a report, entitled “Lithium-ion Batteries for Electric Buses 2016-2026,” they predicted that the large e-bus battery market will grow to $30 billion by 2026, potentially making it the largest segment of the overall battery market. That was because electric buses require large-sized batteries ranging from 74kWh (on a fast charging electric bus) to over 300kWh (on a slow charging bus with a full day’s range in the batteries).
If those predictions are correct, then there will be a quite dramatic ramp-up in production of electric buses. Looking only at Europe, annual registrations of city and suburban buses are around 12,000 to 14,000 per annum. A very small percentage of those registrations are trolleybuses, drawing their power from overhead wires. We are starting to see some developments where those vehicles can have mixed on and off wire operation, for example, capable of running off wire for a few miles in suburban areas.
However, excluding trolleybuses, there were probably no more than 100 deliveries of large all-electric buses in Europe last year and, of those, 35 BYD vehicles were delivered to Amsterdam Airport, mainly for airside use.
The numbers will be higher in 2016, partly as more new models come on stream. The largest order will probably be one for London, with 51 BYD chassis that will have Alexander Dennis bodywork. Last October, the two companies signed a 10-year deal to supply the British market, with an estimated value of $300 million per annum.
It is interesting to see how the development of electric buses is evolving over here. On the one hand, we have the traditional bus manufacturers, and they have been moving at different speeds. On the other hand, there are companies that are specialists in electrical systems and batteries that have started developing buses as an additional sales outlet for their products.
If you look first at the traditional bus manufacturers, the prevailing thought was that hybrid buses would be a step towards the development of all-electric. This was certainly true of Volvo, which started a few years ago with hybrid buses, including chassis for double-decker bodywork for the U.K. market, then used fast charging to extend the range of those vehicles up to 70 percent in all-electric mode. Last year, Volvo took that to the final stage, the all-electric bus, which still relies on fast charging at each end of its routes.
Other manufacturers are working on electric solutions. Mercedes-Benz is developing the next generation of city bus which will have platform suitable for diesel or gas engines, hybrid, all-electric or fuel cell drive. Parent company Daimler company recently extended a factory that makes batteries for electric cars and Mercedes-Benz will be able to plug in to that technology for electric city buses.
Similarly, other parts of Daimler are working on fuel cells and the Bus Division can share the development costs and technology.
It is some of the smaller European bus builders who have moved more rapidly with electric vehicle technology: Irizar of Spain, Solaris of Poland, Van Hool of Belgium and VDL of the Netherlands have all brought their solutions to the market.
Irizar is best known for its range of luxury coaches, but has in recent years added suburban and interurban models with lower floor levels. Irizar never contemplated a hybrid city bus, but has electrical specialists in its group and has now delivered its i2e buses to customers in Spain, France and the United Kingdom. Their model has sufficient battery capacity for a full day’s operation.
Solaris has built more all-electric buses, of various lengths, including 60-foot articulated, and with various engineering solutions. The company argues that if a bus is fitted with sufficient batteries for a full day’s operation, then it will reduce the number of passengers that can be carried. Its preference is for smaller batteries and regular fast-charging. Battery technology seems to be improving all the time, so that fast charging can be accomplished very quickly.
The problem with fast-charging is the need to install gantries, usually at each end of the route, to give a bus a 5 to 6-minute charge. Even standard diesel buses normally have a lay-over time at each end of a route, to give recovery from any traffic delays. With all-electric buses and fast charging systems, it is difficult to recover from traffic delays.
VDL has been working on all-electric versions of its Citea city bus for many months. The base model is interesting, because it makes extensive use of composites, saving weight and improving fuel economy. A fleet of eight Citea articulated electric buses has recently been supplied to Koln, Germany.
In a significant recent development, Irizar, Solaris, VDL and Volvo came together with three suppliers of charging infrastructure, ABB, Heliox and Siemens, to ensure an open interface between electric buses and charging infrastructure and to facilitate the introduction of electric bus systems in European cities.
They have anticipated European legislation that is due to come into force in 2019 and international standards that are due in 2020. They have specifically said that other bus manufacturers and charging systems suppliers are invited to join their cooperation. It is in the interests of transit operators to have common, preferred interfaces that are compatible with the different makes of buses that they might own.
The capital cost of electric buses is considerably higher than standard diesel buses. On the other hand, even though the price of diesel has fallen in the last year, it remains much more expensive in Europe than North America, so the payback in fuel costs should be around four to five years. That makes term financing of electric buses a practical possibility.
The introduction of large numbers of all-electric buses will raise many other challenges. Drivers need to be re-trained, because they handle in quite a different way to diesel buses. In fact, Transport for London believes that the acceleration on prototype all-electric buses is too fast, and has had to slow down their performance.
There is also a challenge for the supply infrastructure. One British manufacturer has said that if all 9,000 buses in London were to become all-electric, the grid would not be able to cope. Their demand would be greater than the total capacity of the city’s largest power station. On the other hand, one of his competitors has said that, if every city bus in the United Kingdom was electric, it would only increase demand for electricity by around 3 percent.
Whatever the case, electricity suppliers have to think about the implications of a depot full of all-electric buses being charged overnight. What impact will that have on other consumers in the area, such as hotels, hospitals and houses?
The large-scale introduction of electric buses opens up new challenges for the manufacturers. Many of them have developed contract maintenance packages where they not only sell vehicles, but provide parts and service for a fixed price over a fixed period. They earn money by using their own genuine parts. Many of those, like engines and engine auxiliaries, will not be needed on electric buses – so where will they make that kind of income?
It will be very interesting to see how the electric bus industry develops – and how rapidly.
Doug Jack is with Transport Resources in the United Kingdom.