Public transportation passengers can take a ride into the future aboard three new, state-of-the-art, zero-emission electric buses plying Howard Transit’s appropriately named Green Route.
Taking the place of three aging diesel buses, the new vehicles were made possible through a Federal Transit Administration (FTA) Transit Investments for Greenhouse Gas and Energy Reduction (TIGGER) program grant acquired by Howard County in partnership with the Regional Transportation Agency of Central Maryland (RTA), the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) and the Center for Transportation and the Environment (CTE).
“This project has been a long time coming,” said Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman. “We are here to deliver once more on our promise to improve the quality of the transit fleet.”
Seven new traditional diesel buses will also join the fleet by the end of the year, he said, followed by seven more at a later date, helping to retire some of the aging fleet of buses that were already 13 years old when the county acquired them.
Operated by the RTA, the three electric buses are part of a demonstration project to evaluate the energy efficiency and cost effectiveness of electric buses and the integration of fully wireless opportunity charging. The transit hub at The Mall in Columbia will host one of the innovative inductive charging stations on space donated by mall owner General Growth Properties (GGP).
The electric powered buses will assist the county in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Kittleman said. “As gas prices increase over time, they will be more cost effective and cheaper to run than our other diesel buses. They will be quieter than our typical buses and will have USB ports for phone charging,” as well as free Wi-Fi service for passengers.
The buses utilize a 270 kWh lithium iron-phosphate energy storage system that is environmentally safe and has a long service life. The vehicles are powered by a battery-electric propulsion system that features an electric-driven rear axle.
“Another key feature is the inductive charging station,” Kittleman said, technology that was provided by Momentum Dynamics of Malvern, Pa. The system utilizes a secondary pad on the bus that aligns with a primary pad in the pavement at the transit hub, where energy is transferred through an air gap, conditioned and used to charge the bus batteries.
According to Momentum Dynamics CEO Andrew Daga, the 50 kW system is the first of its kind on the East Coast and boasts an efficiency of 95%, comparable to traditional plug-in charging systems.
“It is modular in design, so we can easily upgrade it to a higher capacity in the future just by adding another component, if demand calls for it,” Daga said. “What’s more important is that the induction charger effectively doubles the driving range of each electric bus.”
A spec sheet on the electric charging technology indicates that full overnight charging at 80 kW takes up to four hours from a 0% state of charge, taking advantage of lower, off-peak energy rates.
While in operation, the new electric buses are able to recover approximately 8 kWh (or a 3% state of charge) during a 10-minute layover at the transit hub.
“With the additional charging station, the buses will have a range of 190 miles,” Kittleman said, or an average range of 130 miles without charging, depending on passenger load, HVAC load in hot or cold weather, route conditions and driver habits.
The buses can reach top speeds approaching 55 to 60 miles per hour.
“They travel primarily on local roads with lower speed limits, so there’s no need for a higher speed capability,” said Howard County Transportation Planning Manager David Cookson.
“All of the service will be performed at the RTA facility,” Cookson said, by RTA technicians who completed a training program conducted by the Los Angeles-based manufacturer, BYD. “BYD will also provide one staff member on-site for about a year to assist with additional training and tech support.”
Data loggers on board each bus will provide the county and other stakeholders with information as to the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of inductive charging, and that data will be used to calculate estimated emission reductions as a result of operating the battery electric buses in place of diesel buses.
“We’re going to find out if the use of this charging station is warranting that we do this in other places throughout the county,” Kittleman said. “With no fuel costs, it improves our ability to do more with the [transportation] budget. There is also a 12-year warranty on the batteries, as long as the lifetime of the buses themselves. Add all that together with the cost of electric vehicles going down, and we might determine in the future that it’s a more cost-effective way to go.”
The battery packs, in fact, contribute to more than half the cost of each vehicle at present, Cookson said. “The good news is that battery prices continue to drop every year as more and more [vehicles] become battery powered.”
The new buses operate on the Howard Transit Green Route (Route 401) servicing The Mall in Columbia, Village of Wilde Lake, Howard Community College and Howard County General Hospital. Data collection and reporting will continue through August 2019, and the buses will remain the property of Howard County after the project comes to a close.
“I can see us having more electrical buses in the future, but we want to do our due diligence and find out if that’s a good decision,” Kittleman said. “That’s what these three buses are all about.”