Metro Transit Pulls the Plug on Electric Vehicle Experiment

A report in the Minneapolis Star Tribune today indicates that Metro Transit is pulling the plug on its electric vehicle ambitions:

In late 2018, Metro Transit unveiled an ambitious plan to add electric buses to its fleet — a clean alternative that was cheered by environmental and social justice groups.

The idea was to stop buying buses by 2022 powered by diesel fuel.

Since then, the transit agency has deployed just eight electric buses. And a proposal to spend $122 million for 143 new biodiesel buses will be considered by the Metropolitan Council next week. The deal represents about 15% of Metro Transit’s fleet of 900 buses.

Metro Transit’s retreat from electric buses was foreseeable.

Reports of problems with the C Line electric buses were detailed here in 2019, and on Tuesday, the electric chargers overheated, resulting in all eight buses being sidelined.

In addition to charging problems, we outlined how electric buses are much more expensive compared to their diesel counterparts. An electric bus costs around $1.2 million, while a diesel bus sells for about $748,000. We also questioned how useful electric buses would be compared to their diesel rivals because electric vehicles lose 40 percent of their charge operating with the heater on in cold weather.

While we saw this coming, the announcement triggered some environmental activists, according to the Strib:

This has exasperated many of the same groups that applauded Metro Transit’s commitment to electric buses three years ago.

“Every new diesel bus locks us into a minimum of 12 more years of dirty exhaust, climate pollution and reliance on imported fossil fuel,” said Joshua Houdek, senior program manager at the Sierra Club North Star Chapter. “We should be transitioning to clean electric buses now.”

“We need to see rapid electrification of our state’s bus fleets to address climate change in Minnesota, and every new purchase of a diesel bus will prolong that delay and slow our response to the climate crisis,” said Madi Johnson, Clean Transportation and Membership Organizer for MN350, a Minneapolis-based environmental group.”

The loss of battery charge played a role in Metro Transit’s decision, too:

“Cold climates like Minnesota’s can also sap electric vehicle charges. The plan adopted three years ago called for half of the area’s new bus rapid transit buses to be electric powered. But Metro Transit officials are now saying electric buses not a good fit because the new lines cover so much territory so establishing a network of charging stations would prove challenging.”

Metro Transit said it wasn’t entirely closing the door on new electric buses in the future to serve shorter routes, but Metro Transit’s decision shows the technology it not yet ready for prime time.

From my perspective, this change is good for taxpayers, who will spend less on diesel-powered buses than they would for electric buses and good for transit riders, who will have more-reliable service. The Met Council likely accentuated the use of biodiesel to save face with the public as it implicitly admits its electric ambitions were overzealous. Kudos to them for pivoting in the face of adversity and finding a solution that works better for everyone.