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This article was published 1/10/2019 (313 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
According to the Manitoba Energy Justice Coalition, 15,000 people marched for climate action on the streets of Winnipeg on Friday, the largest crowd the city has seen at a march since the 1980s.
Such a demonstration will mean different things to different people when it comes to action that should be taken to deal with climate change and the emission of greenhouse gases.
In the mainstream economy, there is obviously all sorts of push back against low carbon, green technologies when it comes to the capital expense of those undertakings and the preservation of existing capital infrastructures.
This week in Winnipeg, the inaugural Vehicle Technology International Conference, organized by Red River College, focused on alternative propulsion technologies, as well as all sorts of other new "smart" technologies that can be deployed on heavy duty vehicles. To some extent, it was all about the dispassionate nuts and bolts of how to accomplish some of the things those 15,000 marchers were demanding to see happen.
The timing of the conference was coincidental to last Friday’s global climate action day, which saw about seven million people around the world take to the streets.
But it’s hard to imagine a more serious or realistic manner of discussion that mainstream North American economic players could engage in.
As environmentalists will point out, in many instances, alternative technologies are already available that could allow us to transition away from burning carbon-based fuels.
For instance, if more of us used transit buses — even the traditional diesel-powered version — that would take cars off the road and less carbon-based fuel would be spewed into the environment.
But it’s not enough for a large multi-national manufacturer like NFI Group (formerly New Flyer Industries) to innovate and commercialize zero-emission battery-electric buses. It also has to help its customers adjust to the new technology.
"We’re part of the city," said Kirk Burcar, New Flyer’s vice-president of engineering services. "What we don’t want is to be that dirty, dumb diesel bus running around the city when everyone is talking about smart cities. That bus has to keep up with technology and the needs of the city."
New Flyer has a strong track record of being a leader in innovation, but even that is not enough. It has shipped about 100 zero-emission buses this year, but that represents only about five per cent of its sales.
Cities and transit agencies across North America are increasingly interested in running zero-emission buses, but currently, the infrastructure does not exist for them to accept much more than pilot projects. Last year, New Flyer launched a brand-new division called New Flyer Infrastructure Solutions, which provides transit agencies turnkey systems, including sustainable charging and mobility solutions.
"Transit authorities may not be set up to handle the challenge (of running electric buses that need to be recharged)," Burcar said. "We try to make it as easy as possible."
That means providing turnkey charging stations but also navigating other infrastructure needs, including permitting and licensing. For instance, transit systems, including Winnipeg Transit, have run pilot projects with a handful of battery-electric buses. Charging stations have been built and the pilot projects are working.
"But a fleet of 200 buses would require 45 megawatts of power to recharge them," Burcar said. "That’s not easy. It’s equivalent to a small hydro generating station. That’s a whole other level of chicken-and-egg complexity."
New Flyer has been making buses in Winnipeg in one form or another for 90 years. It has been in the "Infrastructure Solutions" business for only a year. But that business is booming.
The Winnipeg bus maker is the largest in North America and prides itself on taking a leadership position in every iteration of new technology advancement in the industry. But its competitors are all now in the electric bus business as well, and New Flyer recently led the charge for an industry-wide initiative towards charger interoperability.
That means that transit agencies can install battery-electric bus charging systems that will work with New Flyer electric buses as well as battery-electric buses made by Nova, Gillig, Proterra and BYD.
Jojo Delos Reyes with Research Partnerships and Innovation at Red River College and the organizer of the conference, is involved in technology development with large vehicle manufacturers in Manitoba and across the country. Red River is about to start booking testing and research projects using its newly completed MotiveLab that can handle heavy-duty vehicles with an extreme-temperature climatic chamber and chassis test facility.
In addition to testing of vehicle electrification, it will also be looking at automation and connected vehicle technology.
At the Vehicle Technology International Conference, New Flyer officials referred to the company as a mobility solutions provider. Officials said that autonomous vehicles may be a decade away. But there is demand — and pressure from the streets — to implement electric vehicles much sooner.
Companies like New Flyer are trying to figure out the right steps to take that will allow the transit agencies to do that.
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.
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