WICHITA, Kansas — This city’s buses all run on diesel.
They navigate Wichita streets with the distinctive rumble of their time-tested engines, belching the distinctive smell of diesel and a concoction of carbon monoxide, particulate matter and nitrogen oxides.
That exhaust clouds the air locally and adds to the greenhouse gases steadily transforming the climate globally.
The city’s new transit director, Mike Tann, imagines a cleaner, quieter fleet moving people at a lower price.
Wichita’s buses are going electric. The first new, battery-powered model wheels into town this month.
It will be the first operating electric bus in Kansas and one of 11 the city will get in the next year. The delivery offers a sign of transit agencies and city fleets leading a move away from internal combustion engines and the pollution they cough into the air.
Before coming to Wichita, Tann worked in Erie, Pennsylvania. About half of that city’s buses run on compressed natural gas, an alternative fuel that pollutes less than traditional diesel engines. When he arrived in Kansas, he was surprised that Wichita officials had never seriously looked at alternative fuels.
Transportation emissions make up the largest source of planet-warming greenhouse gases in the United States. As producers of emissions — and as a potential solution for reducing how much people drive in their cars — transit agencies could play a key role in any major reduction.
“The ultimate goal is to get people to use the (bus) system because they want to,” Tann said. “And electrifying it seems to get people thinking about it and it also gets us off the fossil fuels too.”
Within a few months of starting in Wichita, Tann landed a grant from the federal government to buy low-emission buses. The more than $2 million in grant money let the city buy four new electric buses from manufacturer ProTerra.
California-based ProTerra didn’t just put electric motors and batteries into existing diesel buses. It designed its buses around electric technology. The company has sold more than 700 since its founding in 2014.
Then, using another grant, Tann bought seven smaller electric buses from a company called Custom Coach Works. They’ll replace aging buses that look like old trolleys and run downtown Wichita routes.
To prepare for the arrival of the new buses, the agency needed to remodel and upgrade its bus barn. It now has enough electrical infrastructure in place to charge as many as 14 buses.
Most of the upgrades were purchased with the grant money, but some came from the city’s electricity provider, Evergy.
The utility is also offering the city a special bus-charging rate — higher during the day when network-wide demand for electricity is at its highest, and lower during the night when most businesses are closed and using less electricity.
The buses will almost exclusively be charged overnight. The charging process works just like it would for an electric sedan, such as a Tesla. Transit workers will plug the busses in at the end of the day and by the time the buses need to head out the next morning they’ll be charged with enough power to go about 150 miles. While that’s less distance than some electric cars out on the road now can travel on a charge, it’s enough range for a bus to last a full day on Wichita’s streets.
And that electrical charge will cost less than the equivalent in diesel gas would. Power plants do add to local pollution and climate change, but they can power a vehicle with less damage to the environment than an internal combustion engine.
Electric buses also don’t need frequent oil changes and replace their brake pads less frequently. Wichita Transit estimates each electric bus will save the city $462,000 over its lifetime — 12 years — compared to its diesel counterpart.
Evergy has helped two other Kansas agencies — Topeka Metro and Kansas City Area Transportation Authority — get prepared for charging electric buses as well.
In a way, the transit agencies serve as guinea pigs for Evergy.
“It allows us to go back and understand our infrastructure issues, or if there would be any issues,” Kim Winslow, Evergy’s director of energy solutions said. “It allows us to take a look at what the charging impact will be on our system.”
Smaller transit agencies like Wichita are great for testing new technology. Without spending any of the city’s money (thanks to federal grants), they can gain valuable knowledge about infrastructure needs, maintenance costs and long-term reliability. If it works well for Wichita, other larger transit agencies might choose to follow.
As more electric buses hit the roads, they expose their technology to ordinary consumers. They, in turn, might become more likely to buy electric vehicles.
The Kansas City Area Transportation Agency serves seven counties in Missouri and Kansas. It’s not been able to get federal grants to purchase electric buses, but decided to buy two anyway.
While the new electric buses will only make up a small fraction of KCATA’s fleet of more than 250 buses, agency officials said it’s a step.
“We’re not going to jump into the deep end with all of the fleet,” KCATA CEO Robbie Makinen said. “But we are going to be stepping into that process and as the technology gets better — see where we’re at.”
Other government agencies are experimenting with a range of electric vehicles, too. In an effort to reduce the carbon footprint of its fleet of more than 1,300 vehicles, Olathe, Kansas, purchased compressed natural gas powered trash trucks, hybrids, and four electric Nissan Leafs.
“There’s going to be more and more of it coming that fit more of what we do here,” Olathe fleet manager Josh Wood said. “And the more of that that comes online, the more that we’ll adopt.”
The city is even starting to consider purchasing electric trash trucks.
It’s a trend that’s growing quickly around the world. Analysis from Bloomberg New Energy Finance finds that city fleets increasingly use electric-powered vehicles, especially buses.
“There are more than 30 major cities around the world that have promised to only procur zero-emission buses from 2025 onward,” Bloomberg NEF analyst Nick Albanese said. “And those are in places as diverse as Moscow, Cape Town, and Austin.”
Right now, the numbers are still small in the United States — there are only about 600 E-buses on the streets — but that’s double the number there were just last year.
By 2040, Bloomberg NEF estimates that electric buses will make up as much as 80% of the world’s fleet.
In Wichita, transit director Tann estimates every diesel bus in the fleet will be replaced by an electric- or hydrogen-powered bus as early as 2027.
“Our plan,” Tann said, “is to never buy another diesel-powered bus.”
Brian Grimmett reports on the environment, energy and natural resources for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @briangrimmett or email him at grimmett (at) kmuw (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.
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