Electric mobility is no longer defined by electric cars and e-scooters alone. Electric buses are predestined for emission-free public transport. The overview of a booming market segment.
The future of the electrified city bus has already begun. Over the medium term these buses will replace the traditional models with internal combustion engines in local passenger transport systems. In its CleanVehicle Directive, the EU has set a target of at least 45 percent of newly registered city buses being equipped with alternative powertrains by the end of 2025 – and at least 65 percent by 2030. However, this figure includes not only buses with electric powertrains or fuel cells but also those running on biofuels or liquefied gas. The current generation of battery-powered buses can be operated on about one-third of existing bus lines in urban areas. Some 80 percent of German carriers expect that these buses will have a range of 250 km or more on a single charge, and the next generation will have a range of over 300 km. For many years it was believed that the combination of a heavy commercial vehicle like a bus and an electric motor was not viable. However, city buses always travel the same routes, which means that the stops, driving time and route profile are known.
This planning security has energized the market for battery-electric public transport buses. Moreover, the goal of zero emissions in road traffic is an important topic for cities in particular. E-buses can make a major contribution to climate protection, clean air and noise protection. This benefits not only the environment but also cyclists, pedestrians and local residents in equal measure. Today electric buses are already operating in many cities and municipalities. The Association of German Transport Companies (VDV) has published an interactive map providing an overview of current projects and routes using e-buses in public transport systems in Germany.
The expanding e-bus market continues to pick up speed. According to estimates by the VDV, the number of e-buses in German cities will increase from 400 at present to about 1,000 by the end of 2020. In Germany alone the EU is providing 650 million euros of funding for public transport companies and bus companies by 2021. In a current analysis, the corporate consulting firm SCI assumes that this market will grow by 40 percent in Europe by 2030. According to various estimates, 3,500 to 4,000 e-buses (including hybrid buses) are now on the roads Europe-wide. With a price tag of around 600,000 to 700,000 euros, however, a new electric bus costs over twice as much as an equivalent diesel bus with the latest Euro-VI diesel engine. On top of this, there are construction and conversion costs for depots, filling stations, grid connections and workshops and rising personnel costs. Since e-buses will initially have a shorter operating range than diesel buses, public transport providers will require more vehicles and drivers to maintain regular bus services.
Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF)
In Europe e-buses are produced by more than a dozen manufacturers including Volvo and Daimler Buses (since 2019) with the eCitaro from Mercedes-Benz, the Polish company Solaris and the mid-sized German firms Sileo and Eurabus. Alongside MAN and Scania, Traton – a VW subsidiary for commercial vehicles – is trying to break onto the market. The first electric city buses in series production are expected to be delivered to customers this year. The Dutch company VDL is the market leader here. With more than 700 units, the Netherlands has more e-buses than any other European country. While Europe is trying to catch up, the quiet humming of e-buses at bus-stops has been a familiar sound in China for some time. This positive trend is being driven forward by the manufacturers Yutong and BYD (Build Your Dreams), global leaders who are expanding vigorously toward Europe but have attracted negative attention with some quality problems. In addition, the Chinese Government is a player in the background.
It is an open secret that the Chinese Government made this expansion possible by providing subsidies worth billions to domestic suppliers. In Shenzhen alone – a city in southeastern China with a population of several million – all the city’s 17,000 buses are purely electric. The total of more than 420,000 e-buses now on the roads in China accounts for over 95% of all electric buses world-wide. According to a report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, this fleet saves 270,000 barrels of diesel fuel per day. This is over three times the volume saved by all the e-automobiles in the world. However, the electrification of the Chinese bus fleets also comes with downsides: the bulk of the electric power used to run the buses still comes from coal-fired power plants.
In Germany around 40,000 buses are operated in local passenger transport systems. Most of them run on diesel fuel and their average life span is 12 years. However, municipalities cannot win the fight for clean air in the downtown areas simply by replacing conventional buses with e-buses sporting zero-emission powertrains. The costs for this switch would be prohibitive for them. One solution is to retrofit the buses currently running on German roads using internal combustion engines with zero-emission electric powertrains. The retrofitting concept e-troFit from the company of the same name comprises an electric drive axle made by ZF, state-of-the-art battery technology permitting a range of 260 km and the complex retrofitting of control electronics. This conversion takes only four weeks – a far cry from the 18 months transport companies have to calculate for the delivery of a new e-bus.
The City of Hamburg wants to electrify its public transport system by 2030 – a task requiring more than just money and good will. To achieve reliable regular e-bus services, the necessary infrastructure must be created. The transport company Verkehrsbetriebe Hamburg-Holstein GmbH (VHH) will then consume around 31 megawatts of power on a daily basis. Most of this will be required after operating hours, since the e-buses will be charged overnight. The bus companies will thus draw renewable energy at exactly the times when surplus wind energy is available. An optimal use has thus been found for electric power that could previously not be fed into the grid.
ABB has developed a fast charging system for charging buses on their normal routes. In the TOSA solution (Trolleybus Optimisation Système Alimentation), the bus comes to a halt at a bus-stop. A movable charging arm on the roof of the bus automatically takes up an upright position and connects to a contact on the flash-charging station. While passengers board and alight, the on-board batteries are recharged at 600 kW within 20 seconds. The bus now has enough energy to travel on to the next charging station. The onboard batteries are fully charged in a maximum of five minutes later on at the terminal station. In Nantes, France, and Geneva, Switzerland, TOSA is already used successfully in daily bus operation. The inductive charging system PRIMOV from Bombardier, in contrast, uses a pick-up coil that descends automatically. The charging station then transfers energy to the vehicle via an electromagnetic field. However, the first test projects were not successful. As was the case with electric cars, many manufacturers and concepts for e-buses will disappear in the future.