ALBANY — Two years into the electric bus era at CDTA, the regional transit authority is happy with the emissions-free coaches and is expanding its fleet.
The original four buses from 2020 have been joined by two more, and another two are on the way. This week, the U.S. senators representing New York announced $25.4 million in federal funding to buy a dozen more electric buses and, perhaps more important, boost the charging infrastructure for them.
It’s not like popping the battery for a cordless drill into a charger for a half hour: CDTA’s electric buses roll with a 440,000- to 466,000-watt charge.
The CDTA garages will have a current draw equivalent to an entire village, or even a small city, if they’re going to engage in the wholesale charging of a large fleet.
With the amount of electricity now available to its central maintenance on Watervliet Avenue, CDTA can charge only two of the six electric buses at once, and only at half power. And that’s after a transformer upgrade.
The rest of CDTA’s fleet — 265 buses — burns diesel.
But upgrades are coming inside the cavernous garage and in the power lines serving it. More of the 12 million passengers traveling 10 million miles a year with CDTA will be doing it with kilowatts, not hydrocarbons.
“With this new grant it’s going to allow us to upgrade that transformer again, it’s going to allow us to upgrade the switch gear inside the building to allow us to carry the amps we need to charge 65 buses,” CDTA Director of Maintenance Dave Williams said.
“To make it more manageable for my staff, we’re going to have pantograph dispensers under the ceiling. So when you pull underneath the dispenser, the dispenser automatically comes down, connects, dispenses and when it’s fully charged it goes up. All hands-off, all fully automated.”
The work being done by CDTA will soon be replicated across New York — a state law passed earlier this year bars the purchase of diesel school buses starting in 2027 and bans their operation starting in 2035.
And that’s the one potential sticking point Williams sees in the electrification of bus fleets: The amount of power generated in or imported to New York state must increase rapidly as the state attempts to phase out most fossil fuel use in favor of electricity, and the electric grid must expand to carry it all.
If they get the kilowatts they need, CDTA’s electric buses seem up to the task.
“Everything we were told about how they were going to operate and perform as far as the range, they have lived up to those expectations,” CDTA spokeswoman Jaime Kazlo said.
Bus No. 1903E sat in the main garage Friday morning with an 83% charge, cooling fans humming quietly as Williams discussed some of its features.
- It’s a true 100% electric bus — it doesn’t even burn fuel for temperature control in the passenger compartment. So 1903E emits no exhaust but it loses some range by diverting battery power to heating and cooling.
- On an optimum weather day with temperatures in the upper 70s, with drivers who accelerate gently and brake gradually, 1903E will go about 220 miles and run 15 to 17 hours before getting close to battery depletion.
- Maintenance and repairs are reduced — 1903E has a 90% in-service rate vs. 80% for its diesel cousins of the same age.
- And if it were standing beside the diesel bus at the bottom of Albany’s State Street hill, and both drivers floored the accelerator at the same time, 1903E would reach the top of the hill first by a wide margin — it can muster 2,800 peak foot-pounds of torque, and the power is immediate, while the diesel engine has a considerable turbo lag.
Not everything is ideal.
- On a bitter cold day, or if handled with the hard acceleration and hard braking used with a diesel bus, the range and run time of 1903E is as much as 50% reduced.
- The batteries are very heavy, and three of the four cells are on the roof, raising the center of gravity and calling for slower turns.
- A battery charge takes four to six hours, while filling a fuel tank takes 10 minutes.
The addition of all-electric buses did not require a huge leap in employees’ skill set, Williams said. There are 75 diesel-electric hybrids in the fleet, so CDTA’s mechanics and technicians were already familiar with electric motors and batteries.
The drivers sometimes need a reminder to accelerate and brake more gradually in an electric bus, Williams said, but those buses produce a lot of data, so it’s easy to see if someone’s depleting the batteries at a rapid rate, and how.
But the technology of moving people with electricity instead of diesel is solid and will only improve, Williams said. Electricity needs to be used with a little more strategy than diesel, but it works.
“The biggest observation is, you have to manage your plan for the day for that vehicle,” he said of CDTA’s first two years of electric bus operation.
“I hope the agencies are prepared for the stress that we and all the other transit agencies are going to put on the grid. Losing power is my biggest concern.”