Union of Concerned Scientists
By Jimmy O’Dea

One of the largest transit agencies says yes

King County Metro (Seattle area) recently released a report analyzing the feasibility of transitioning its 1,400 buses to zero-emission vehicles. Metro found it can achieve a 100% battery electric bus fleet as soon as 2034 with minimal increases in expenses.

This is a MAJOR announcement from the 2nd largest bus fleet on the west coast and the 9th largest in the United States. It indicates the confidence Metro’s fleet managers have to deploy zero-emission vehicles on a large scale.

Metro’s fleet today consists mostly of diesel (34%) and diesel hybrid (53%) buses. Electric trolley buses powered by overhead wires make up the rest of the fleet (12%).

Transitioning to battery electric buses will reduce Metro’s climate impacts by 80% over the next 30 years compared to its current fleet. The report concluded this level of ambition is needed to meet the county’s goals for reducing global warming emissions and improving public health.

Electric bus technology is here and ready

Metro found that the range and charging times of today’s battery electric buses can meet the needs of 70% of its routes. Anticipated advances in technology will allow the remainder of Metro’s routes to be serviced by electric buses.

Between now and 2020, Metro will incorporate 120 electric buses into its fleet, making it a national leader in zero-emission transit. Based on technology readiness, the report recommends that all new bus purchases be zero-emission thereafter.

Metro recognizes the challenges in adopting a new technology, but it isn’t backing down. It engaged with power utilities, for example, to discover it’s possible to get the amount of power a large battery electric bus fleet would require.

Metro’s human resources department is also exploring how it can have a workforce with the right skill-set to meet the needs of an all-electric bus fleet. Improving the accessibility of jobs in the electric truck and bus industry was a major recommendation of a report we wrote with The Greenlining Institute.

But won’t this break the bank???

Nope. Metro reports the purchase price of a standard 40-foot battery electric bus is cost-competitive today if not cheaper than its current diesel hybrids. Including purchase, maintenance, and operation costs, Metro estimates a 6% increase in expenses to transition their entire fleet to zero-emission vehicles, with a range of -27% to +10%.

Including the monetary benefits of improved air and quieter neighborhoods, the overall costs of a fully zero-emission fleet are reduced to just 2%. These costs are real but often ignored on balanced sheets.

You might think the costs only work out because Washington enjoys cheap electricity, but the analysis was based on an electricity price of $0.15/kWh. This is much higher than the rate Metro pays today and was chosen in anticipation of future electricity rate structures.

Benefiting those most impacted by air pollution

Metro is prioritizing the roll out of zero-emission buses in communities that bear the greatest pollution burden – low-income and communities of color. A major part of the report centered on identifying bus routes that operate in the most polluted communities.

Metro concluded that taking cars off the road through public transit shouldn’t count in meeting its climate goals. Nor should it be able to buy its way to carbon neutrality with carbon offsets. Its principles for equity and reducing local air pollution rightfully played a large role in these recommendations.

A clean fleet powered by clean energy

Not only does Metro recommend a 100% zero-emission fleet, it also recommends these buses be powered by 100% renewable energy (including hydropower). Washington’s large hydroelectric resource gives Metro a big head start on this. In 2005, Seattle City Light, which would power 75% of Metro’s all-electric fleet, became the first carbon-neutral electric utility in the country.

But Washington isn’t unique in the carbon benefits of electric buses. We found that battery electric buses on today’s grid in California have 70% lower global warming emissions than natural gas or diesel buses.

Fuel cell buses with 33% hydrogen from renewable energy (per California law, SB 1505), have 50% lower global warming emissions than natural gas and diesel buses. And across the country, the grid is getting cleaner.

More than just clean buses

Metro has a lot of other great things going on. King County was one of the few transit agencies in the United States to see an increase in ridership last year. And it plans on increasing ridership even more, requiring its fleet to increase from 1,400 to 2,000 buses by 2040. Metro is proof that expanded service and clean buses can go hand in hand.

Metro also helps get people onto buses with discounted transit rates for low-income individuals. And it gets people out of their cars and into clean, shared rides with an electric vehicle carpool program.

I went to college in the Puget Sound region and have many friends and family in the area. It is very inspiring to see a place I love be a leader on clean vehicles and clean air.

If King County Metro’s work inspires you, contact board members on your local transit agency. Let them know zero-emission buses are ready to make your community a better place to live.

P.S. If you live in Los Angeles, tell LA Metro, the largest transit agency on the west coast, to also be a leader on zero-emission buses.