It looks like the City of Winnipeg’s plan to replace Winnipeg Transit’s fleet of diesel buses with hydrogen fuel cell and battery electric vehicles came at the right time.
A week after the city’s plan was released, the federal government announced a $14.9-billion plan that includes $3 billion per year, starting in 2026-27, to make public transit more efficient.
The details on how the money will flow and whether it will be exclusive to electric or zero-emission buses are not clear. But for manufacturers such as NFI, and industry technology advocates like the Canadian Urban Transit Research & Innovation Consortium, who have long maintained it is not if, bit rather when, electric buses will rule the road, it was a monumental milestone.
"This is really, really big news," said Paul Soubry, the CEO of Winnipeg’s NFI Group, one of only a handful of manufacturers with electric bus models commercially available. "We are giddy. It is very exciting."
Unlike the U.S., where there has been an established federal funding formula for transit agencies for 30 years, Canada has never had enough resources for such dramatic change.
Now that there is an imperative to reduce emissions, it is not just a matter of coming up with more money to buy battery electric or hydrogen fuel cell buses. Extensive infrastructure investments have to be made.
Transit agencies not only have to figure out where to put charging stations, they have to worry about power supply, re-designing routes and re-training drivers and maintenance engineers.
Josipa Petrunic, president and CEO of the consortium, said not only was the federal funding announcement a "huge deal", it has come at the right time now that there are enough excellent commercial offerings and enough experience on the operational side to know what needs to be done.
While there has been a big push for electric buses for several years — New Flyer has been perfecting its offering for 10 years — the level of complexity involved in the technology shift is huge.
The industry needed the last few years to get enough data from pilot projects — including one of the first that took place in Winnipeg — for agencies to have a clear road map.
"If this had been announced two years ago, it would have been wasted," Petrunic said.
There are only about 150 electric buses on the road — not counting trolley electric — out of about 15,000 in total.
Even though the Canadian market is only a small portion of NFI’s business, it is important for the company to be able to continue to grow its domestic market, especially with increasing pull from Buy America regulations to shift more of its manufacturing south of the border.
"This is home court for us," Soubry said. "What we want is the ability to put together programs in Canada that we can show to the world solutions that include the bus, the charging, the telematics, the monitoring, the maintenance and all this other stuff."
He said small cities, such as Brandon for instance, do not have the resources to plan for all of the issues that need to be addressed.
In the past, few could criticize small agencies that had put off electrification of their fleets because of the cost involved.
Now, Petrunic said, there will be a solution to deal with the cost factor, but it will be a matter of their willingness to deal with the complexities.
"In the past, it was often a question of sales versus science. But now the science is there," she said.
Even still, it can take a year to analyze how many buses are needed, where to do the charging, how much charging power is needed, accessing the power and determining what power level is required and then getting the plan approved by city councils.
Then maybe another year to wait for the delivery of the buses.
Meanwhile, the details of how this new federal funding will be dispersed must be determined, including whether there will be provincial funding and how the program will be administered.
But for Soubry and New Flyer, it’s a major first step in a process that the company has been engaged with for more than 10 years.
"This is absolutely an important part of insuring we can continue to stay viable and on top of the game in our home country," he said.
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.