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Metro has zero electric buses now. It wants to have 2,200 by 2030

An Orange Line Metro bus stops at Warner Center.
An Orange Line Metro bus stops at Warner Center. Metro plans to electrify the Orange Line first.

The nation’s second largest public transit agency – the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority – is going electric. On Thursday, Metro announced it plans to begin phasing out its 2,200 natural gas buses and replace them with electric battery engines by 2030.

Metro is the largest public transit agency yet to signal it intends to ditch internal combustion engines. In Southern California, the Antelope Valley and San Gabriel Valley-based Foothill transit authorities have goals of running only buses with zero tailpipe emissions in the next 15 years. But these agencies combined have fewer than 450 buses – less than 20 percent of Metro’s total bus fleet.

Currently, Metro does not have any electric buses in its fleet. The agency bought five electric buses from Lancaster-based bus manufacturer BYD a few years ago, but was so disappointed with the results that BYD bought them back.

Metro staff say they are aware that the agency is taking an unprecedented step.

“I worry all the time,” said John Drayton, Metro’s head of vehicle technology, laughing. “This is not a comfortable 'go and buy buses that have been driven for 12 years and are service proven.' We’re going into new territory here.”

The plan is to begin by electrifying the Orange Line, a bus line that runs from North Hollywood through the San Fernando Valley, and the Silver Line, which runs from downtown LA to San Pedro. Drayton said electric bus technology is available today that will work on these lines, which are flatter and less demanding on the bus than many of LA County’s other bus routes. If that goes well, the Metro board will decide in 2019 whether to proceed with phase two: replacing the rest of the natural gas fleet.

Drayton said there's not currently an electric bus on the market that can meet Metro's needs for its rapid or local service, where buses run 250 miles a day. “We think those vehicles will become available around 2020 or 2022,” he said.

If by that time the bus technology hasn’t progressed as much as Metro thought, the agency will push back the 2030 timeline.

If Metro makes the switch, the agency could see significant air and climate benefits. Electric buses have 30 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions and 20 percent fewer smog-forming nitrogen oxide emissions than the cleanest natural gas bus, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. (The natural gas industry disputes this.) And as the California power grid becomes more reliant on renewable energy and less on fossil fuels, the climate benefits will increase.

For months, environmentalists and public health advocates had been pushing Metro to commit to zero tailpipe emissions technology. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti sent a letter to the agency in May urging the same.

Adrian Martinez, a clean air advocate and attorney with Earthjustice, called the announcement, “the start of something big. It’s a big deal when one of the largest transit agencies in the country moves to a zero emission future.”

Meanwhile the natural gas industry – which stands to lose a huge contract selling fuel to Metro’s compressed natural gas buses – told the Metro board they could be making a huge mistake.  

“The first five (electric) buses failed,” said Todd Campbell, with the natural gas fuel supplier Clean Energy Fuels. He cautioned that the electric buses – which currently cost upwards of $200,000 more than a comparable natural gas bus – may not come down in price. He asked the board to consider where the money would come from to pay for the $3 billion needed to switch over Metro’s entire fleet and build charging infrastructure.

“We have yet to see advanced clean tech for any platform go down in costs and there is a proven technology available to Metro right now that achieves deeper emissions reductions than electric at a fraction of the cost,” Campbell said after the meeting, referring to "renewable natural gas," or using methane captured from dairies and landfills as fuel instead of fossil-based natural gas produced from wells. 

Others told the Metro board members that in switching to electric buses, they were modeling clean technology for dirtier transportation sectors. Taken together, heavy-duty diesel trucks in Southern California emit six times as much smog-forming nitrogen oxide as transit buses, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District. 

“You need to treat your role as a proving ground for durability, reliability, costs and other factors for the heavy-duty vehicle industry generally, not just for your fleet or for buses,” said Denny Zane, the executive director of the public transit advocacy group MoveLA. “This is a much a bigger issue for you to ponder.”

Historically, Metro has been a proving ground for earlier versions of clean tech: after testing out its natural gas engines in transit buses, manufacturer Cummins Westport put its engines into trucks working at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, where they were one of the technologies that helped bring down diesel emissions by 95 percent.