The bus wars are over and electricity has won — thanks to a big boost from China.
In fact, when it comes to electric bus purchases, China is outpacing the United States by an astounding 421,000 to 300 as of the end of 2018.
Thanks to China’s massive investment in and support for electric buses, electrics are now racing past a 50% share of new bus sales worldwide, according to a recent analysis by Bloomberg NEF (BNEF).
For decades, cities and countries have been trying to replace dirty diesel buses, which not only emit staggering amounts of urban air pollution and greenhouse gases, but they also routinely break down and need major repairs.
Cities around the world have tried buses running on a variety of cleaner alternatives to diesel, including natural gas, hydrogen, biodiesel, and electricity. But in recent years, it has become overwhelmingly clear that nothing can compete with electricity for the highest efficiency and performance along with lowest emissions and lifetime cost, including fuel and maintenance.
“Everything that has an urban drive cycle will ultimately be an electric vehicle,” Ryan Popple, the president and CEO of Proterra, the leading U.S. electric bus company, explained to ThinkProgress back in 2016.
But electric buses aren’t just winning because they have no tailpipe emissions. They are also so efficient they have one-fourth the per-mile fueling cost of regular diesel buses and the other alternatives — even running on renewable power, thanks to the rapid price drops of solar and wind power.
In addition, electric buses have considerably lower maintenance costs, as many studies have shown. So over the 10- to 12-year lifetime of a typical urban transport bus, an electric bus can save $400,000 in total operational costs compared to a typical diesel.
Back in 2016, a new electric bus only cost some $300,000 more than a diesel, so total lifetime savings could be as much as $100,000. But battery prices have been dropping so rapidly that the differential in upfront cost is now closer to $200,000.
The net lifetime savings from electric buses is thus growing rapidly. In China, subsidies and stringent pollution regulations have pushed more and more cities to switch over to electrics entirely.
Shenzen, the first Chinese city to switch to all electric buses, finished the transition in 2017 with the help of China’s $150,000-a-bus subsidy and a city-wide effort to accelerate the process. Today, the megacity of 13 million people has 16,000 electric buses.
Now Beijing is requiring major cities to establish deadlines to replace all diesel buses with electric ones. The UK Guardian reported in December that “more than 30 Chinese cities have made plans to achieve 100% electrified public transit by 2020,” including such megacities as Guangzhou, Nanjing, Hangzhou, and Shandong.
How remarkable is China’s rapid adoption of electric buses? Electric vehicles (EVs) of every kind will displace a total of 350,000 barrels of gasoline and diesel this year, BNEF projects. Three-fourths of that displaced fuel will be from electric buses, 99% of which are in China.
In U.S. cities, purchasing decisions are often driven by upfront costs alone, which are still substantially higher for electric buses. That reality, together with the Trump administration’s general opposition to clean energy subsidies, has left U.S. electric bus sales languishing.
To help address that problem, Proterra launched a program in April that allows customers to lease the batteries over a 12-year period — rather than pay for the entire cost upfront. That will make the initial cost of the electric bus comparable to that of a diesel bus, making electrics more attractive to cash-strapped municipalities.
But such efforts pale in comparison to China’s gains. Beijing sees batteries and electric vehicles as a major strategic investment in a world increasingly focused on improving the air quality in polluted cities and preserving a livable climate.
The Chinese have a 99% stranglehold on production and use of electric batteries. The United States has little chance of matching China until we have a president and Congress that understand that the urgency and inevitability of a carbon-free future means the nation that makes the biggest bets on clean technology will reap the most rewards in the years to come.