In its latest forecast for electric bus fleets, Bloomberg New Energy Finance is bullish. By 2030, BNEF expects that 84 percent of all municipal bus sales will be electric.

That’s a statistic supported by commitments from around the world, where cities including Mexico City, Cape Town and San Francisco have pledged 100 percent electric bus fleets in the future. So far, though, 99 percent of the 385,000 electric buses on the road in 2017 were located in China, according to BNEF. 

As sales of light-duty electric vehicles have hovered between 2.5 and 4 percent of total car sales in the last five years, EV experts have framed municipal buses as the low-hanging fruit of electrification, because they travel specific distances at specific times and carry a lot of passengers. But the global penetration of electric buses remains minimal.

Source: Bloomberg New Energy Finance

A recent report from the Los Angeles Times points to the challenges confronting urban areas making the conversion. While climate-conscious cities may be ready to convert to electric, factors including high costs, scalability, and flexibility compared to diesel buses can still hamper the transition.

According to L.A. Times reporting, the county of Los Angeles has worked since 2008 with Chinese battery company BYD Limited on electric buses and heavy-duty electric vehicles. The Times found that the buses delivered so far have experienced a handful of issues. 

Los Angeles experienced problems with range, which was promised at 155 miles but in reality topped out at 133 miles, and some months averaged less than 50 miles. Battery charge and mechanical malfunctions were also a problem. Similar issues with BYD buses occured in Denver, Anaheim, Phoenix, Columbia, Missouri, Albuquerque and other cities.

“The whole thing is a bit of a lemon,” Albuquerque mayor Tim Keller told the paper, concerning the city’s contract and its challenges with BYD. “And now we’ve got to learn to make lemonade.”

BYD, using a separate analysis of L.A. transit records, said its buses did come close to meeting the advertised 155-mile range. The company also said mechanical problems are a typical part of new product delivery.

But the challenges are worrying to city officials who have pledged electric fleets by 2025 or 2030.

The challenges also affirm conclusions highlighted by BNEF in a March report specifically focused on the electrification of buses.

“Cities believe the number of e-bus models offered is still very limited, and does not sufficiently cover all of their needs,” reads the BNEF report. “Cities need to work closely with bus manufacturers to show demand for specific types of e-buses.” 

That includes buses that can handle different environments, such as the heat in Los Angeles, the freezing winters in Chicago, or the hills of San Francisco. 

While electric buses offer unique logistical challenges, such as aligning range with route and installing charge points, BNEF’s analysis finds that the greatest barrier to electric bus adoption remains cost, not technology.

In that respect, buses are already approaching the tipping point of competitiveness.

According to BNEF, a bus with a 250-kilowatt-hour battery that’s charged once a day and drives about 103 miles per day is cheaper to own than a diesel bus. (A 2006 study from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory notes that New York City buses drive about 80 miles per day.)

“Our analysis of battery cost curves indicates that electric buses will reach unsubsidized upfront cost parity with diesel buses by around 2030,” reads BNEF’s report. “By then, the battery pack in the average e-bus should only account for around 8 percent of the total e-bus price — down from around 26 percent in 2016.”

That timeline indicates advancements could align with city goals to electrify.

In the meantime, governments may already be setting their sights on more ambitious plans. California’s Air Resources Board is working on an Innovative Clean Transit measure, requiring all of the state’s transit providers to transition to zero-emission vehicles — a goal Los Angeles already committed to achieving by 2030.