How Canada is both leading and falling behind on electric buses

Buses. They’re the veins of our cities, transporting billions of people around their daily lives. Whether it’s a morning commute, a lift home from school, or a trip to the hockey game, buses have been a stalwart of Canadian life for decades.

But most Canadian buses also pollute. Yes, they’re better than cars because they move more people, but they are nonetheless a sizable source of emissions. The good news is there’s a solution, and it’s a big opportunity for Canada.

Enter electric buses (or e-buses), powered by emission-free electric motors making them healthier for both people and the planet. What’s more, many are manufactured here in Canada, and that’s good for business. And with an extra $2.2 billion in Tuesday’s budget earmarked for infrastructure funding—including transit—there is more money available to buy them. Yet despite their appeal, most Canadian transit operators are acquiring few e-buses compared to other cities globally. As a new report by Clean Energy Canada lays out, it’s a missed opportunity.

For starters, a timid approach could mean Canadian e-bus companies choose to open manufacturing plants in the U.S. rather than in Canada, which is already the case for some of these companies. And Canadian businesses are losing valuable contracts to manufacturers from countries with more enthusiastic e-bus markets, namely China.

One need only look at Shenzhen. The Chinese city has undergone a complete e-bus transformation, growing its fleet from 1,000 to over 16,000 in just five years. Not only is it the first fleet in the world to go totally electric, it’s the largest bus fleet of any kind on the planet—over eight times bigger than Toronto’s. In fact, thanks mostly to China, by the end of this year 270,000 barrels a day of diesel demand will have been displaced as a result of e-buses.

As cities across Canada set targets to substantially cut emissions in the next two decades, the country’s transit authorities need to make decisions now to ensure they remain on track. Montreal is showing good leadership with a plan to transition to zero-emission transit by 2040, but other Canadian cities are moving too slowly.

Many global cities have even more ambitious targets, procuring hundreds of e-buses and investing in the associated infrastructure. Without a strong market at home, our Canadian e-bus companies—such the Lion Electric Company and GreenPower Motor Company—will find it more difficult to keep prices low, making local products less internationally appealing.

E-buses aren’t necessarily an expensive option either. With battery prices falling 79% between 2010 and 2017, e-buses are becoming increasingly competitive with diesel buses. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, transit providers will be able to drive away an e-bus for the same price as a diesel bus by 2030, while also saving hundreds of thousands on fuel costs over the bus’s lifetime.

Vancouver’s TransLink estimates that lifecycle cost parity—which factors in the upfront purchase cost plus operating and maintenance costs—will be achieved by 2023. When the associated cost to public health is added to the equation, some studies argue e-buses are already cheaper.

Although many look to e-buses as the transit of our future, they’re also the transit of our past. Canada welcomed electric trolley buses back in 1922, replacing old gasoline buses in Toronto’s growing suburbs. The e-buses were so popular that the transit commission of the day upgraded them to larger electric vehicles—the forerunners of today’s street car. The choice to adopt a new and innovative technology paved the way for a transit system so successful it’s still transporting millions of Canadians almost a century later. Let’s hope that future generations can look back on this period and remark how Canada showed global leadership in the universal shift toward electric transportation.

This post was co-authored by Dan Woynillowicz and originally appeared in the National Observer.

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