Greensboro’s First Electric Buses to Hit the Road Next Year

Gaylon Depot in Greensboro
(Last Updated On: February 21, 2017)

Gaylon Depot in Greensboro

Public transportation in Greensboro is about to get a lot greener, not to mention quieter. Plans are moving ahead to replace the city’s fleet of diesel fueled buses with battery powered electric models, with the first three electric models scheduled to hit the streets in early 2018.

The city’s switch to electric made the news in December 2016, when Duke Energy awarded the Greensboro Department of Transportation (GDOT) a $450,000 grant for the purchase of a rapid charging station for the electric buses. The charging station, which will be installed at the J. Douglas Gaylon Depot on East Washington Street, will be able to fully charge a bus battery in seven to 10 minutes.

GDOT Director Adam Fischer said the city is ready to finalize the order of the charging station as well as the first three electric buses, but that the results won’t be immediate.

“The order will take about a year to complete,” said Fischer.

The wait is due to the made-to-order nature of electric vehicles.

“They don’t just have electric buses sitting around waiting to roll off the lot. You have to place an order and then they build them for you,” Fischer explained.

GDOT wants to switch to all electric in the next 10 years, but the change will not happen all at once. The city plans to use the annual federal funds granted to replace buses that have reached the end of their 12-year or 500,000 mile lifespan with their electric counterparts.

Electric buses cost significantly more than buses powered by diesel, so the city will use $4.5 million in voter approved transportation bonds from last November’s ballot to help ease the transition to electric buses.

“We’re getting ready to place the order for three electric buses now,” said Fischer.

Greensboro’s current fleet of buses contains 47 diesel models and 11 hybrids, which alternate between diesel and electric engines. The hybrid buses were introduced in 2011, as a way for the city to reduce fuel emissions and save money on diesel costs. Fischer said that while the hybrid models have helped somewhat, electric buses have since proven to be even more cost effective.

“Overall maintenance and operations costs of the electric buses pan out to be better over the long haul. Hybrid buses save us some on fuel, but not as much as we’d anticipated,” said Fischer.

Electric buses pose no fuel costs or emissions, and they also present fewer mechanical problems (another unexpected drawback of the hybrid buses).

“There’s still a pretty major maintenance routine that you have to go through with hybrid buses,” said Fischer. “You still have to change the oil; there are various transmission issues that go on. The electric bus motor system is much simpler. We’re anticipating much less maintenance cost with the electric vehicles.”

A 2016 study conducted by Columbia University found that on average, an electric bus needs $39,000 less upkeep than a diesel bus each year. So over the average 12-year lifespan of each electric bus, the city can expect to save around $468,000 compared to diesel.

A fleet made up entirely of electric buses could also represent health care savings for city residents. The same Columbia University study found that the reduced air pollution caused by introducing just one electric bus would save residents of New York City roughly $100,000 per year in health care costs. That number would likely be lower in a small city like Greensboro, where air pollution related illness is less of a problem. But the savings are still nothing to sneeze at (or rather, cough at).

Greensboro’s switch to electric buses is just one part of a state and nationwide shift away from fossil fueled vehicles. The 2016 GDOT grant for the charging station is linked to Duke Energy’s Electric Vehicle Charging Infrastructure Project. The project aims to make North Carolina more environmentally friendly by installing 200 electric vehicle-charging stations around the state for use by passenger vehicles. There are already nearly 800 such charging stations around North Carolina, but the Duke Energy project represents a 30 percent increase in stations statewide.

With electric vehicles gaining ground in both the public and personal spheres, it looks like Greensboro’s transportation and environmental policies will keep rolling toward the future.

Mia Osborn is a Greensboro-based freelance writer who hails from Birmingham, Alabama.