Should BC Transit have purchased 100% electric buses for Victoria?

No Goldilocks option for Canadian voters this fall, just hard choices about how fast to electrify economy

A minor kerfuffle over electric buses for Victoria illustrates a key energy transition question voters should consider this fall as they mark their federal ballot: how quickly should Canada electrify its economy? The four major political parties have climate plans that address this question.

Source: BC Transit.

On July 19, the British Columbia announced the purchase of 36 buses, 10 of them electric, which drew the ire of Green Party Leader Elizabeth May. Since federal funding is involved, she argued that all of them should be e-buses.

“This is an opportunity missed,” May said in a press release. “Canadians are worried about the climate emergency, with good reason. They see other countries moving forward with fleets of electric buses and here in Canada we’re continuing business as usual.”

Thus far, 99 per cent of the global electric bus fleet is in China, according to Professor Ray Wills of the University of Western Australia. While other countries are beginning to electrify their bus fleet, most are no further along than Canada, where cities like Montreal and Toronto are slowly shifting to electric.

According to an email from BC Transit, not all classifications of transit buses are commercially available in an electric version. Until they are, some new buses in BC will be fueled by compressed natural gas (CNG), which burns cleaner than diesel fuel.

“CNG buses will have the ability to be fuelled by Renewable Natural Gas [methane produced by biogas], which provides even greater emission reduction potential than CNG,” says BC Transit, which already operates CNG fleets in Nanaimo, Kamloops and Whistler, and will be adding CNG fueling capability to Central Fraser Valley and Victoria.

On Monday, BC Transit released its bus fleet electrification strategy. The authority says it will  start buying only electric heavy-duty buses in 2023, “with a target of creating a fully electric provincial fleet in all vehicle classifications by 2040.”

Source: “Will Canada Miss the Bus?” by Clean Energy Canada.

BC Transit says that investments in electric buses will depend upon the business case, the economics of e-buses versus CNG or diesel units. Even though e-buses are more efficient than internal combustion engine vehicles, and they require less maintenance and repair, Wills says e-buses aren’t yet strictly competitive but soon will be.

“The metrics are still not there yet properly,” he said in an interview with Energi Media. “But if you’re a manager of fleet and you buy diesel in 2023, you will be sacked in 2024.”

By 2030, the purchase price of diesel and electric buses will cost the same, according to a recent study from Clean Energy Canada. By 2023, lifecycle costs – capital cost plus operating and maintenance costs amortized over the expected life of the vehicle – will be similar.

When externalities like air and noise pollution are included in the calculation, then it could be argued that e-buses are the best choice today, says Wills.

Canada even has its own e-bus manufacturers. For instance, Winnipeg-based New Flyer has been around since 1930 and claims to be the biggest bus-maker in North America, but has enthusiastically embraced electrification. China is well ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to e-bus manufacturing, churning out 181 per day, according to Wills, who expects Chinese industry leaders like BYD to be fierce competitors in the North American market.

Source: “Will Canada Miss the Bus?” by Clean Energy Canada.

Should Canada electrify its bus fleet quicker to help bus-makers like New Flyer scale and become globally competitive sooner, even if it means governments subsidizing sales now? That’s the road China chose and it clearly worked.

If the answer is yes, then paying a premium for e-buses now makes even more sense.

So, how are e-buses in Victoria relevant to the climate change and energy policy platforms of the major political parties?

The Green Party’s climate plan wants the country to be put on a war footing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Full electrification cannot come soon enough for May, as her complaints about the Victoria e-bus purchase attest.

The NDP is also aggressive, with a goal to completely electrify transit fleets across the country by 2030. Leader Jagmeet Singh’s approach is less about personal sacrifice by Canadians, which would be a consequence of the Greens’ plan, and more about significantly increasing federal government funding to speed up the transition to low-carbon energy technologies.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government is somewhat less aggressive than the other two parties, but not markedly so. While Ottawa doesn’t have a transit electrification goal, this spring it signed the international “Drive to Zero” pledge, whose goal is to make medium and heavy-duty truck zero-emission technology commercially viable by 2025 and the majority of sales by 2040.

The Conservative Party of Canada has proposed the least aggressive climate plan. “By removing current measures like the carbon tax and rebate, this plan will do too little to actually reduce emissions and more to raise the cost of living for Canadian households,” said Michael Bernstein, the executive director of Clean Prosperity.

The four federal political parties have different approaches to climate and energy policy. How might each party approach BC Transit’s purchase of electric and CNG buses?

May and Singh would have to explain how they would electrify transit fleets when bus manufacturers can’t supply all the models needed and the necessary infrastructure isn’t in place. Who would pay for the higher capital costs of the e-buses, the cost of retraining repair technicians and stocking spare parts?

Being an early adopter of any new technology means higher costs and greater risk the equipment won’t be as reliable or functional as the technology it replaces. Not only does haste make waste, but it creates all manner of unforeseen problems that could undermine the success of the switch from diesel and CNG to electric.

Liberal policy is less ambitious and less likely to incur unnecessary costs but is it enough in the face of the climate crisis, which Parliament recognized by passing a non-binding motion just six weeks ago declaring a “national climate emergency”?

The CPC plan commits only to support private-sector efforts to close “the gap between conventional and zero-emission vehicles” while encouraging the improvement of “the energy efficiency of international trucking in North America…”

Canadian voters have to face the unpleasant truth that there is no Goldilocks option, no just-right strategy that will enable Canada to speed up electrification of the economy at no or little added cost.

The lesson Canada should take from the Victoria e-bus purchase is that there are only hard choices that will likely have consequences we don’t like.

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