Calif.’s plan to kill the diesel bus

Source: David Ferris, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, August 16, 2018

The diesel-powered bus, a mainstay of public transportation across the country, will no longer be purchased by transit agencies in California within the decade if the state’s air regulator has its way.

The plan is another sign that California isn’t relaxing its drive to stamp out carbon emissions, even as the Trump administration has proposed eliminating the state’s ability to regulate the waste from tailpipes (E&E News PM, Aug. 7).

Other pushback comes from within. Some California transit agencies argue that they can’t afford to electrify their fleets as bus ridership is in decline and that the expense will require them to cut services.

Last week, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) scheduled a public hearing on its “Innovative Clean Transit” plan for Sept. 27.

“The proposed regulation aims to evolve the California transit bus fleets to zero-emission technologies by 2040,” according to a CARB report.

The rule would require transit agencies to buy more zero-emission buses over time. Big transit agencies would need to have zero-emissions buses make up a quarter of their new-bus orders by 2023, half by 2026 and all by 2029. Small transit agencies are on a slightly more relaxed schedule.

Another provision, coming into effect only two years from now, would forbid large transit agencies from buying diesel or compressed natural gas and would require lower-emission substitutes.

The rule would be a boon to the market for electric and fuel-cell buses, which would be the only technologies to meet the new target.

This year, transit agencies across the country have announced plans to buy electric buses. As of May, according to CARB, California’s transit agencies had 132 zero-emission buses and have 655 more in the pipeline. Eight of the state’s 10 largest transit agencies are using them.

If successful, the zero-emissions rollout would culminate California’s decadeslong campaign to rid the state of diesel buses.

CARB’s transit regime, known as the Transit Fleet Rule, has been in place for 20 years. It began by requiring bus fleets to either retrofit diesel buses with filters (the diesel bus path) or buy buses powered by cleaner fuels (the alternative fuel path).

In 2006, the rule was ratcheted up to require large transit agencies to buy at least 15 percent of their buses as zero-emission models. Transit agencies met that goal in 2011. Then, in 2015, CARB started planning to eliminate diesel.

Between 2020 and 2050, the purchases would prevent 19 million metric tons of carbon emissions, the CARB report said.

The proposal is finding resistance among the transit groups that would need to turn the rule into reality.

“Don’t make us sacrifice expanded transit service for the gleam of high-cost technology that isn’t ready for prime time!” the California Transit Association wrote in a February comment on the proposed rule.

Transit agencies have estimated that electrifying the state bus fleet would cost as much as $6.5 billion, factoring in not just the buses but the charging infrastructure to fill their batteries.

CARB argues that leaves out the savings. There’s less to break on an electric vehicle compared with an internal-combustion engine, and electricity costs could be cheaper than diesel fuel. The agency also estimates that electric buses will be significantly cheaper a decade from now.

Dwight Worden, the mayor of Del Mar, a suburb of San Diego, submitted a comment with CARB in favor of zero-emission buses but in opposition to requiring them.

“Focusing on encouragement and guidance rather than regulations that cannot be attained due to budgetary constraints is, we believe, a better way to go,” he wrote.

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