Is it realistic that in two years only electric buses will be available in our cities?

English2020. feb 24.Növekedé

As of 2022, cities with over 25,000 population must purchase/procure electric buses for local transport. This was announced by PM Viktor Orbán at Kormányinfo at a regular briefing by the government, which was followed by Q&A with journalists.

How will this new plan be implemented?

The evolution of electric cars is a subject closely followed by the public all over the world. Electric buses, however, receive much less attention.

Aside from those most recent models that meet strict environmental criteria, diesel buses are very polluting and noisy.

Demand for electric buses in densely populated areas may arrive sooner than most people expect.

What’s more, the city councils who purchase buses, and the companies that operate them, take a different approach to e-mobility than individuals who buy electric cars. They often put environmental considerations ahead of price. Similarly, the frequent need for charging large electric batteries poses less of a problem for buses than cars. It becomes a problem of efficiently organizing bus routes around a large, centralized bus charging station, rather than satisfying car charging demand that is spread widely throughout a large metropolitan area.

The challenges facing the adoption of electric buses are many. The price of electric buses needs to fall and become equivalent to that of diesel buses. The centralized charging infrastructure must be built in a timely, cost-effective manner to compete with existing diesel fuel supplies. The range of electric buses must be extended so that the size of the fleet needed to cover for the downtime during charging in insignificant relative to diesel buses.

These gaps were once wide but are now being narrowed. Eventually, the choice between diesel and electric buses will become obvious, but we are not quite there yet.

What are the options right now? What buses do manufacturers have to offer?

Just like an e-car, an e-bus has far fewer parts than one with an internal combustion engine (ICE). Electric engines are very simple in their structure and are similar to trolley buses. Often, not one, but two engines are built into an e-bus.

What makes electric vehicles expensive is the battery, and that manufacturing e-buses is still in an early, experimental phase. These e-car and e-bus makers keep developing, changing, experimenting and improving things. With mass production yet to come, the price per e-bus remains higher than conventional buses.

Fortunately, these problems will be solved with time. With the quantity of production rising, the price of batteries is decreasing. In the meantime, their storage capacity and effective range also keep increasing.

Eventually, when a type of battery is considered good enough by both the manufacturer and the general public to produce an efficient level of operation - which would mean manufacturing hundreds or even thousands of batteries a year - the price of e-buses and e-cars would be competitive with their ICE counterparts.

Today, a recent model diesel bus with lower emission levels costs approximately HUF 70-80 million. The starting price of an electric bus is HUF 120 million, but this price can increase depending on availability and the manufacturer.

Also, there is not yet an established market. Not only manufacturers but cities are experimenting as well. Some will buy a model, change some of their bus lines to e-buses, etc., but ever more cities keep postponing/pushing the date by which they intend to change over to an all-electric fleet further and further away into the future.

Are there any unique considerations to be aware of?

Many technology-related questions arise that are not an issue for ICE models (except for high emissions levels). When it comes electric vehicles, the climate, the landscape, the distance buses need to cover all matter, not to mention how busy a particular bus line is. If the city is on a rolling terrain where buses must climb slopes, energy demand (per kilometer) increases. This means e-buses must be charged more frequently. The same is true for very low temperatures or when a bus line is very busy (requiring many more stop and go cycles per kilometer).

In terms of terrain and the environment, Hungary fares well. Most cities are on flat or gently rolling terrain. In Budapest, some routes on the Buda side may pose a challenge where more powerful batteries are needed.However, weather is not a problem and it especially has not been so in recent years, as lasting cold spells and freezing temperatures are becoming rare. So buses developed for general conditions are suitable for Hungarian cities – which means there is no extra cost compared to normal prices.

How many buses would cities need to buy if they were to meet zero-emission targets by 2022? And how long would it take for them to procure/purchase them?

In Budapest, roughly 1,600 buses run today. Once the reconstruction of metro line 3 is completed (in approximately 2-3 years’ time), the capitol city will need about 100-150 fewer buses.

This means that the ones with the worst emission could then be phased out without having to buy new ones. In the rest of the cities, there are around 3,000 buses used in city transportation.

As a rule of thumb, a fleet should be renewed every ten years. A longer running time for ICE vehicles is not efficient, though many of the buses still running are much older than that.

If done at an even pace, replacing buses requires 300 new buses per year.

As of 2022, these can be electric only.

With the current price tag, this would be quite a burden for cities. However, thanks to the pace at which the industry is progressing, prices are gradually dropping. The price of electric cars is estimated to be on par with those of ICE by 2025. Why couldn’t the price of electric and ICE buses not be on par by then?

If that happens, cities will be buying more expensive buses in the first three years only - ideally with the premium decreasing every year. In that case, the premium could be paid, in part, by state subsidies.

What are the options for buying from manufacturers in Hungary?

Today, China takes the lead both in terms of manufacturing and the number of vehicles registered. In Europe overall, 2,500 electric buses are running, of which 1,000 were registered just last year. In China, the number of e-buses totals 400,000.

On a brighter note, BYD, a Chinese maker headquartered in Shenzen, which has sold 400,000 buses so far. It has recently built a factory in Komarom with a capacity of 400 buses per year, though production has not yet started. What’s more, the Komarom factory would be making buses with lighter aluminum chassis.

Other domestic manufacturers are not yet a viable option. Modulo, the maker of small electric buses running in the Buda Castle, went bankrupt. Some foreign makers with sales in Europe, such as the Polish Solaris, may become another option.

Is it worth adopting ebuses?

Buyers (cities) and sellers will continue to “gauge up” each other. They will experiment, look at what works and what manufacturer they should buy from. We are currently in an experimental phase.

In 2018, 500 buses were sold in Europe.

Last year, that increased to 1,100. But if we do have a go at it in 2022, we can quickly become early adopters in this rapidly growing sector and successfully convert our cities’ transportation to electric power.