Photo: Jimmy O'Dea

Electric Airport Shuttle Buses Are Taking Off

, senior vehicles analyst | June 27, 2019, 9:18 am EDT
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Update: The standard was passed unanimously by the California Air Resources Board.

Today, California is expected to pass a standard that will transition airport shuttle buses to zero-emission battery and fuel cell electric vehicles.

While California established a standard for zero-emission transit buses last year, airport shuttle operators are distinct enough from public transit agencies that a different policy is fitting.

The shuttle bus standard covers an estimated 950 vehicles operating at 13 airports. Transitioning these buses to zero-emission technologies by 2035 will reduce global warming emissions by an estimated 35,000 metric tonnes CO2e per year, the equivalent of taking 7,400 of today’s cars off the road each year.

The operational characteristics of shuttle buses (i.e., fixed, short routes and stop-and-go operation) are well matched to today’s electric vehicle technology. There are already 14 companies that make over 30 different models of electric buses ranging from large transit-style buses to small shuttle buses.

And airports are beginning to adopt these vehicles. One hundred electric shuttle buses are on order or operating at 9 of the 13 airports in California that will be covered by the standard. Notably, San Jose recently unveiled 10 electric shuttle buses and Los Angeles is expected to receive 20 electric buses soon. There are already 16 off-airport electric shuttles taking customers between LAX and a nearby parking garage.

“Why bother?”

Some might say that 950 vehicles is small compared to California’s 1.9 million heavy-duty vehicles. Or that 35,000 metric tonnes of emission reductions isn’t that much compared to the state’s annual 430 million metric tonnes of global warming emissions.

It may look like a small step in the right direction, but there are several reasons this policy—and others like it—can be big leaps.

First, if we’re going to reduce carbon emissions and inequitable exposure to air pollution by electrifying as many or all of the vehicles on the road, we have to start somewhere and airport shuttles are well-suited to be an early adopter of electric technologies. In fact, the policy for airport shuttle buses is even stronger than the one now in effect for transit buses, requiring every bus purchased beginning in 2023 to be zero-emission for airports. Compare that to 2029 for transit agencies.

Second, we usually don’t get big policy shifts without passing small policies first. The good news is that bigger policies—covering all categories of heavy-duty vehicles—are in the works. Even when bigger policies are in place, it often takes smaller policies to further strengthen them.

Third, shuttle buses have a lot in common with trucks. Just look at the two vehicles on the top. One carries passengers and the other carries packages, but otherwise they are the same vehicle.

The same goes for the shuttle bus and box truck on the bottom. They have the same business in the front, just different parties in the back.

What this means is that electrifying shuttle buses will increase the availability and market for all electric trucks.

Finally, heavy-duty vehicles disproportionately contribute to global warming and air pollution compared to cars. Buses and trucks are large vehicles with large engines that consume more fuel per mile than cars. Electric buses offer zero tailpipe emissions and 75 percent lower global warming emissions on today’s grid in California compared to diesel and natural gas buses.

Replacing just one diesel or natural gas bus with an electric vehicle has the same effect as eliminating the emissions from several cars. As mentioned above, this policy’s transition of 950 buses to electric technologies will have the same effect (from a global warming perspective) as taking 7,400 of today’s cars off the road each year.

Policy details

The standard applies to shuttle buses serving all 13 major airports in California, including: Los Angeles (LAX), San Diego (SAN), San Francisco (SFO), Burbank (BUR), Oakland (OAK), Ontario (ONT), Santa Ana (SNA), Sacramento (SMF), San Jose (SJC), Fresno (FAT), Long Beach (LGB), Palm Springs (PSP), and Santa Barbara (SBA).

The standard applies to both public and private airport shuttle buses, but only those with fixed routes less than 30 miles long. Types of vehicles falling under the standard include buses operating between airport terminals, rental car sites, off-site parking lots, or airport hotels. Door-to-door charter services, taxis, and ridehails (i.e., Uber and Lyft) are not included in this policy.

Fleets must achieve the following percentages of zero-emission vehicles on the road by these dates:

  • 33 percent by December 31, 2027
  • 66 percent by December 31, 2031
  • 100 percent by December 31, 2035

Any existing zero-emission shuttle bus replaced after January 1, 2023, must be a replaced to a zero-emission vehicle to prevent any backsliding.

With fuel and maintenance savings expected from electric vehicles compared to diesel, natural gas, and gasoline, as well as decreases in vehicle purchase costs, the standard is estimated to save $30 million across the state from 2020 to 2040.

Significant state funding is available to incentivize early action before 2023, providing savings above and beyond the estimated $30 million. California’s HVIP voucher program, for example, provides $25,000 to $160,000 in funding for the purchase of battery electric shuttle buses (depending on the vehicle size) to offset higher purchase costs.

This is just the beginning

With policies only for transit buses and airport shuttle buses, many types of heavy-duty vehicles remain ripe for electrification. Nearly every truck operating in an urban setting with a local operating radius is suited for electrification today.

California is currently working to: a) set standards for manufacturers to make electric trucks and buses, and b) set standards for fleets beyond transit and shuttle buses to purchase these zero-emission vehicles, such as refuse trucks, delivery trucks, and port drayage trucks.

UCS supports the standard for zero-emission airport shuttle buses. It is the result of more than two years of public meetings and significant analysis of the airport shuttle bus industry.

No single policy will solve all of our air quality and climate problems, but progress is the sum of all things, airport shuttle buses included.

Editor’s note: This blog was corrected to reflect the policy that any zero-emission shuttle bus replaced after January 1, 2023 must be replaced with a zero-emission bus. This requirement does not apply to all shuttle bus purchases as previously indicated.

Photo: Jimmy O'Dea
Photos: Jimmy O'Dea, Thomas R. Machnitzki, and MobiusDaXter

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  • Pop Fizz

    Jimmy, what are your thoughts on the data emerging showing higher costs of operation and lower reliability for battery electric buses compared with RNG? Specifically, the NREL Foothill study?

    In addition to airports, California transit authorities are also coming out with their transition plans to BEB. These are including $200k+ in additional purchase price per bus and $280k per bus in charging infrastructure costs. If all of the buses are moved from RNG to BEB, the estimated cost is $7-10B. It looks a lot of money to spend for the same or higher GHG emissions and essentially the same point source emissions. Wouldn’t this money be better used in converting light duty vehicles to electric?

  • Tom Becker

    There are 3 things the regulation should be attempting to achieving: 1) achieving mandated air quality standards in California, especially in the SCAQMD. 2) eliminating open-loop CO2 emissions. 3) eliminating petroleum consumption. Current Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) techology can achieve all three goals. ICE technology was intentionally excluded by CARB, because CARB is attempting to commit a fraud upon the public by falsely claiming that only electric vehicles can solve the problem.

  • Tom Becker

    CARB violated the California Environmental Quality Act ( CEQA) by intentionally refusing to allow non-electric PZEV propulsion systems to be considered as alternatives. CARB intentionally refused to respond to comments and questions posed by the public that addressed the scope and adequacy of the environmental review, another violation of CEQA. CARB intentionally made several false statements in the environmental review, with the intent of submitting those false statements to courts of law. This regulation is a fraud.

    • Jimmy O’Dea

      Hi Tom, thanks for the comment. On page 125 of the standard’s Final Environmental Analysis, you’ll see that CARB considered a non-electric alternative to this standard.

      Specifically, it considered an alternative that would allow natural gas vehicles fueled with biomethane to count as an interim compliance alternative. CARB concluded that such an alternative would not meet the goals of the State Implementation Plan for eliminating tailpipe criteria pollution. While biomethane would lower life cycle emissions compared to business as usual, the analysis concluded it would not result in the required emission reductions in the most polluted “non-attainment” areas.

      Nor would such an alternative satisfy the intent of the standard to advance zero-emission technologies in applications such as airport shuttles that are most suited for electrification.

      Regarding public comments, nearly every one of the 15-20 comments made at the Board meeting today were in support of the standard. The only objection of note came from the natural gas industry.

      • Tom Becker

        It refused to consider alcohol fuels.

      • Jimmy O’Dea

        Hi Tom, The case for other alternative, combustable fuels would follow the same shortcomings as described for natural gas above, not achieving zero tailpipe emissions or advancing zero-emission technology in applications most suited for battery and fuel cell vehicles. During the two year public process around this standard, alcohol fuels was not an issue that came up in any forum I participated in.

      • Tom Becker

        You never saw the discussion about alcohol fuels because you never read the written comments submitted for the regulation, which are posted on the regulation website. Second, electric vehicles and fuel cell vehicles are not necessary to achieve state and federal air quality standards. Those standards can be achieved using current, certified 2020 model year Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) technology. That fact was stated in written comments submitted to CARB. CARB intentionally refused to consider those comments. ICE technology, powered by 100% renewable fuels, can eliminate the production of open-loop CO2 emissions, eliminate petroleum comsumption and achieve compliance with state and federal air quality standards. CARB intentionally ignored all those facts submitted to them. The regulation is a fraud, intended to perpetrate a fraud upon the people.

  • butch koch

    So all this “electrical” power comes from where? Magic wands waived by angels and fairies?

    • Jimmy O’Dea

      Hi Butch, No angels or fairies. The electricity will come from power plants, the best being solar and wind. But even on today’s grid in California, battery electric buses have 75 percent lower global warming emissions than diesel and natural gas buses. See link in blog.

      • Tom Becker

        What about engines that run on 100% renewable natural gas and 100% renewable alcohol fuels? Those types of engines produce less emissions per mile than electric vehicles. Those technologies were intentionally excluded from consideration by CARB. The regulation is a fraud, intentionally created to commit fraud.