Winnipeg partnership builds successful clean energy buses

In Winnipeg, Canada, a small fleet of all-electric buses is providing a glimpse of future public transit.

Since 2014, Winnipeg Transit has been using four purpose-built electric buses that automatically recharge on their route. With lower maintenance costs as well, the buses have shown the potential for zero-emission public transit in a city already powered by emissions-free hydroelectric energy.

What started as a four-year-demonstration has been so successful that a task force recommended looking for ways to expand electric bus use in Winnipeg. The buses are also spreading to other cities. Some are already operating in Chicago and Washington, D.C., and they are on the way to Albany, N.Y.; Boston; Oakland, Calif.; Portland, Ore.; and Salt Lake City. Los Angeles is working on plans to electrify its entire bus fleet.

The project’s origins date back to 2011, when Winnipeg-based bus manufacturer New Flyer developed prototypes with the help of Red River College researchers, instructors, and students, said Jose “Jojo” Delos Reyes, a program manager at Red River. Manitoba’s Vehicle Technology Center, electric utility Manitoba Hydro, and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries each kicked in about CAD $1 million (USD $790,000).

After more than a year shuttling Manitioba Hydro employees between office buildings, the bus, batteries, and charging system had passed the test of operating in a harsh Canadian winter, and were ready to move into full production and demonstration. Sustainable Development Technology Canada, a foundation established by the Canadian government to fund clean-energy technology, gave CAD $3.4 million (about USD $2.65 million) to build the buses and a charging station for the real world.

The four New Flyer Xcelsior model battery-electric transit buses now traverse a two-hour, 40-kilometer (25-mile) route through the city, and to and from the Winnipeg Richardson International Airport. During a 10-minute layover at the airport, the bus automatically connects to an overhead charging station using a pantograph, similar to the wire connections on trams and electric trains. The station delivers enough power to the lithium-ion batteries for another two-hour run.

“Basically, it lets the bus run continuously, 24/7,” said David Warren, the director of sustainable transportation at New Flyer. “For every hour the bus is in service, it takes [about] six minutes to charge it.”

The batteries have a total capacity of 200 kilowatt-hours, allowing a bus to operate up to five hours between full charges. Each bus has a range of about 145 kilometers, or a little more than 90 miles, Warren said, with a 200-mile range battery in the works.

New Flyer maintains the buses and chargers, which it trained Winnipeg Transit to operate. With no transmission, emissions system, or oil or filters to change, maintenance costs are far less. Warren estimates maintaining an Xcelsior battery-electric bus costs about CAD $158,000 (about USD $124,000) less than maintaining a diesel or CNG bus over its lifetime, a savings of about 30 Canadian cents per mile (about 24 U.S. cents).

The electric buses save up to 160 tons of greenhouse gas emissions per bus, per year compared to conventional diesel buses, Warren said. 

The buses returned electric transit to Winnipeg for the first time since trolleys, powered by overhead wires, were retired in 1965.

“Part of our vision for Winnipeg’s future includes supporting technology and innovation,” Mayor Brian Bowman said in a statement, “especially when it is homegrown and the end-users who benefit from it are Winnipeggers.”

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