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City climate leaders should take notes and learn from Charlotte's electric bus pilot

The city is running a 12-to-18 month pilot program to test 18 electric buses, step one in finding the best vehicle for its full transition to electric buses.

Bus driving on a street. Trees and skyscrapers are in the background

City of Charlotte, North Carolina, residents can breathe easier knowing soon that the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) transit buses covering the region will become all electric, supported by a first-in-the-nation energy modeling and financing partnership with Duke Energy via subsidiary eTransEnergy. Under the leadership of Mayor Vi Lyles, City Manager Marcus Jones and CATS Chief Executive Officer John Lewis, Charlotte and city council have taken an important step toward reaching the city’s ambitious climate action goals by approving a 12- to 18 month pilot program set to test 18 battery electric buses of varying manufacturers, a first step to finding the most suitable vehicle for the city’s full transition to battery electric buses. Charlotte City Council voted overwhelmingly to approve the pilot program Monday.

Many of the largest U.S. cities’ transit agencies, from Seattle to Los Angeles to New York City, are working to convert their bus fleets from diesel to electric. Electric buses are cleaner, quieter and often more cost-effective than their diesel counterparts over the life of the vehicle, making it easier for transit agencies to choose electric. But while ripping up the diesel bill and sweeping air quality improvements make electric buses increasingly appealing, high up-front costs remain a barrier to making this critical investment in public health.

In partnering with eTransEnergy for this pilot, Charlotte and CATS are taking a new approach to financing, electricity modeling and testing multiple bus manufacturers prior to a full transition to an all-electric bus fleet, and cities nationwide can take note. The partnership allows Charlotte to bundle the up-front costs of 18 new buses from three manufacturers, charging infrastructure and the necessary training and maintenance to support a 12- to 18-month pilot. The pilot will allow CATS to collect data, evaluate the program’s viability and assess vehicle performance while operating on several transit routes.

Leading with health equity

Electric buses are among the smartest clean-air strategies because they remove one of the most common irritants of asthma (not to mention other respiratory disease) directly from the front porches of poorer communities and communities of color that historically have been burdened with higher pollution levels.

To advance the city’s equity agenda, this electric bus partnership will prioritize Charlotte's "Corridors of Opportunity," identified under-invested areas of the region. Areas experiencing the highest pollution rates — especially along freight corridors and highways — benefit most immediately from these investments. Each electric bus that replaces a diesel-powered bus removes damaging particulate matter and ozone-causing emissions from the sidewalks and bus stops where kids and adults live and breathe.

Charlotte and CATS are taking a new approach to financing, electricity modeling, and testing multiple bus manufacturers prior to a full transition to an all-electric bus fleet, and cities nationwide can take note.

A winning strategy for climate

As transportation becomes the single largest sector of carbon emissions nationwide, electrifying transportation is a winning climate strategy for all because of the greater efficiency of battery engines compared to internal combustion — and the benefits further improve by adding cleaner energy sources to supply the grid.

This pilot supports Charlotte’s unanimously-adopted Strategy Energy Action Plan (SEAP), which sets municipal operations on a path to source 100 percent of its energy use in buildings and fleet from zero carbon sources by 2030. Last year, Charlotte added 35 MW of solar to the grid using Duke Energy's Green Source Advantage program. This year, the city officially weighed in on Duke's long-term resource planning to represent 850,000 Charlotteans who want to further accelerate adding renewable energy while retiring old fossil fuel generation. Charlotte’s ambitious climate goals include reducing the carbon intensity of grid supplied electricity by at least 90 percent by 2045, which will deepen the future emissions reduction benefits of this electric bus pilot and expand its public health benefits throughout the region.

Charging ahead

More than a year ago Duke Energy approached Charlotte with an unsolicited proposal to work with CATS in transitioning to a fully electric bus fleet. At the time, as part of the Bloomberg Philanthropies American Cities Climate Challenge, Charlotte already was accelerating municipal fleet electrification, expanding the fleet and nearly doubling city-owned charging infrastructure. Charlotte, together with CATS and eTransEnergy, submitted a grant application to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and was awarded a $3.7 million Low or No Emissions Grant Award, which will fund six of the 18 buses.

After completion of the pilot program, eTransEnergy will support the transition of the entire CATS bus fleet with one or more selected electric bus manufacturers, including the opportunity to further Charlotte’s partnership with electric bus company Arrival, which announced in March that its U.S. headquarters would be in Charlotte. eTransEnergy also will support CATS with workforce development to ensure staff have the proper training to operate and maintain these new vehicles. CATS is expected to receive the electric buses by the end of 2021, with pilot operations anticipated to begin in early 2022.

The path that Charlotte, CATS and eTransEnergy are setting has the potential to be a model for other climate leaders around the country. With this first-of-its-kind pilot program, Charlotte leaders are cleaning their region’s air one bus at a time.

This blog was co-written with Catherine Kummer, climate adviser for the city of Charlotte, and originally appeared on NRDC's Expert Blog.

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