Battery-powered bus to hit city streets

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It's back to the future for Winnipeg Transit.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/11/2014 (2933 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It’s back to the future for Winnipeg Transit.

Forty-four years after the city got rid of its electric trolley buses, the newest generation of battery-electric buses hits the streets Saturday, starting with route 20 Watt Street (Watt, get it?)

Transit and New Flyer Industries are putting Winnipeg at the forefront of a mass-transit technology many believe will be state-of-the-art in urban transit in a few years.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman gives a "rock on" hand gesture after the announcement that battery-powered electric transit buses are going to be deployed at the James Armstrong Richardson Airport for a Winnipeg Transit route.

Starting Saturday morning, some passengers on the Watt-Academy route will ride a zero-emission (and virtually zero noise), battery-powered bus — one of fewer than two dozen buses with that type of propulsion system in service in North America.

It’s part of a four-year, four-bus trial Winnipeg Transit is embarking on in partnership with New Flyer.

For the past three years, the Winnipeg bus-maker, along with a group of research partners, has been developing the Xcelsior battery-electric bus, and this is the first market pilot test.

Three other battery-electric buses will be navigating Winnipeg routes by the end of January.

“There is no question in my mind that this is the technology of the future,” said Winnipeg transit director Dave Wardrop. “This is the way the industry is going.”

Each of these battery-powered, zero-emission buses is expected to eliminate about 160 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year and save up to $35,000 in operating costs per bus annually. That’s as much as $400,000 from reduced fuel costs and reduced maintenance expenses in the normal life of the vehicle.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS The roof mounted pantograph is deployed to recharge batteries while passengers disembark when the electric bus pulled into the charging station after the announcement that battery electric transit buses are going to be deployed at the James Armstrong Richardson Airport for a Winnipeg Transit route. It recharges it's battery in about ten minutes, enough to get it through its two-hour route. 141127 - Thursday, November 27, 2014 - (MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

While there are very few buses using battery-powered propulsion systems currently on the streets of Canada and the U.S., the industry is poised for a surge in electrification.

Paul Soubry, the CEO of New Flyer, said, “It’s not like it’s going to go from 20 electric-battery buses to 500 overnight, but we truly believe that in the future, electrification will be the dominant part of the fleet.”

As it stands, there are about 85,000 heavy-duty transit buses in operation in Canada and the U.S., and New Flyer is the largest player with about 43 per cent of the market share.

Soubry said last year about 55 per cent of New Flyer’s total production came from liquid or compressed natural gas propulsion buses, 25 per cent was traditional diesel buses and 25 per cent was hybrid.

Soubry said as the technology and market conditions continue to evolve and while fuel costs go up and down, the long-term perspective from both the cost of operations and environmental protection signal increasing demand for the buses.

While the first pilot test models might be twice the cost of standard heavy-duty diesel buses, he said prices will come down.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

New Flyer has built the bus with lots of local collaboration, including from Winnipeg Transit, Red River College, Manitoba Hydro, the province’s Vehicle Technology Centre, Mitsubishi Heavy Industry and the federal government’s Sustainable Development Technology Canada fund, which came up with about half of the $7-million development costs.

“Honestly, where do you find an environment where you have the provincial, federal and city governments all behind something like this as well as educational institutions, the power utility and the market-leading manufacturer all collaborating for next generation technology,” Soubry said.

“There are very few times when you have all these interests aligned.”

The first high power-charging station has been installed at the Richardson Airport. The automated roof-mounted charging takes about 10 minutes while passengers load and unload at the airport terminus.

The battery capacity allows the bus to operate for five hours. By charging on its route, the bus could stay in service 20 hours per day, seven days per week.

Politicians from the three levels of government were at the airport for the announcement Thursday, all clearly pleased with the prospects of supporting such a significant technology-commercialization play.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS The roof mounted pantograph is deployed to recharge batteries while passengers disembark when the electric bus pulled into the charging station after the announcement that battery electric transit buses are going to be deployed at the James Armstrong Richardson Airport for a Winnipeg Transit route. It recharges it's battery in about ten minutes, enough to get it through its two-hour route. 141127 - Thursday, November 27, 2014 - (MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

Even though New Flyer is the dominant industry player, it is not the only one developing this kind of all-electric bus.

The world’s largest battery producer, a Chinese company called BYD, is in the process of developing a battery-electric bus from scratch at its operations in California.

Another company, a technology startup based in South Carolina called Proterra, is developing an all-composite electric bus with the backing of Silicon Valley venture capital as well as from General Motors Ventures.

New Flyer’s Canadian competitor, Volvo-owned, Quebec-based Nova Bus is also working on a battery-powered bus.

Soubry is probably right to think New Flyer’s track record of customer support as well as a market-leading parts and after-market business will position it well for the next wave of alternative-energy buses.

For instance, Winnipeg Transit’s fleet of 585 buses — including a new order for 58 Xcelsior buses from New Flyer announced last week — are exclusively diesel.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Wardrop said Winnipeg Transit has chosen not to dabble in the latest trends, but instead has been monitoring the various technologies with a strategy to make a change to one platform once that will last for a generation or longer.

“That’s our thinking about electricity,” he said. “We think it is the next shift in the paradigm within the industry. That is why we are proving it out with a long-term, four-year test. If it proves out, then we look at conversion.”

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

Martin Cash

Martin Cash
Reporter

Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.

History

Updated on Friday, November 28, 2014 6:55 AM CST: Changes headline, replaces photo

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