April 13, 2021

Charlotte Area Transit System to pitch electric bus pilot program through Duke Energy partnership

Charlotte Area Transit System wants to begin an electric bus pilot program as part of a proposed partnership with Duke Energy in time to have vehicles on the road by the start of 2022. On Monday, transit system CEO John Lewis briefed City Council on plans to convert to electric buses from diesel.

Lewis and CATS will bring a formal proposal for the pilot program to council for a vote on April 26. 

Specific costs have yet to be fully determined. CATS earlier committed to buying six electric buses for $7.4 million, paying half that amount and using a federal grant for the rest. 

Upon further study, the transit agency and Duke spinoff eTransEnergy now favor putting 18 electric buses in service for 12 to 18 months as part of CATS’ 300-bus fleet. Doing so would allow for extensive testing of various manufacturers’ buses in all seasons and on varied routes with regular passenger loads.

Buying another 12 buses at an average price of $900,000 would cost $10.8 million.

Julie Eiselt, head of council’s transportation committee, told CBJ that the city expects federal subsidies to cover 80% of the purchase price of the electric buses.

It would take five to seven years to fully convert the bus fleet once CATS and eTransEnergy finish the pilot program and analyze the results. It’s possible that eTransEnergy would help finance the city’s share of buying new buses as part of a broader agreement to provide the power, charging stations and maintenance to CATS.

“We think it is prudent for us to move forward with this initial pilot,” Lewis told council. “These 18 vehicles will help us with replacing some of those older vehicles that have reached (the end of) their useful life. And then over the next year, as we continue to get more information about the performance of those vehicles, we’ll be able to make more informed decisions.”

The pilot program includes eTransEnergy installing charging stations at CATS’ existing bus facility on North Davidson Street and another on South Tryon Street. 

Previously, the transit agency planned to begin with hybrid buses and then move to electric vehicles. A year ago, Duke Energy approached CATS executives and pitched the idea of a partnership that would include joint investments in buses and the charging stations needed to power an electric fleet. Lewis told councilman Ed Driggs on Monday that the transit agency, based on the potential of collaborating with eTransEnergy, has leapfrogged its earlier hybrid plans and will go instead straight to electric buses. Diesel hybrid buses cost $500,000 each.

Vehicles from the three electric bus manufacturers that have been approved by the federal government will be part of the CATS pilot program. Federally approved, in this case, means the bus makers meet safety standards. That, in turn, makes those vehicles eligible for the federal funding that CATS and other transit agencies rely on to replace aging buses.

Currently, the federal government requires transit systems to keep buses for 500,000 miles or 12 years. That requirement applies to all vehicles purchased at least in part with federal grants.

Using vehicles from several manufacturers provides the best chance to gather data on how the electric buses perform in normal working conditions in Charlotte, Lewis said. Tests elsewhere have shown varying levels of battery life and performance depending on what part of the country the buses are in, topography and local climate.

Council member Dimple Ajmera, who leads the environment committee, asked Lewis on Monday whether CATS might test buses made by Arrival, a British electric-vehicle company that will soon move its North American headquarters to Charlotte. Arrival is also opening two microfactories in the area.

“We have had conversations with them and we’re hoping that they will be able to move forward in this time frame,” said Lewis, referring to Arrival seeking federal safety standards approval for its electric buses. 

Councilmen Greg Phipps and Braxton Winston expressed reservations about potentially entering into a long-term contract with eTransEnergy, the Duke subsidiary. 

Phipps asked whether there could be any conflicts of interest for CATS and the city. Lewis said the proposal has been vetted by city government’s legal department but said he will check to see whether conflict of interest was specifically analyzed.

Winston sought assurances that any power provided by Duke and eTransEnergy would come from sustainable sources and not fossil-fueled electricity. CATS has already informed Duke that the source of energy is a concern and would need to be verified as sustainable, Lewis said.

The pilot program under consideration does not commit city government to eTransEnergy or Duke — that would happen only if the two sides decide to collaborate on overhauling the entire fleet.

Learn more. 

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