Laketran considering alternate fuel for its local route fleet

By Chad Felton, The News-Herald | Thursday, March 30, 2017

Laketran may introduce new energy to public transportation in Lake County.

Advances in the burgeoning technology of battery-powered electric buses, and their operating and maintenance costs compared to diesel fuel, are making electric buses a more attractive option to power Laketran’s 16 heavy duty, low floor buses that serve the local in-county fixed Routes 1-6.

Laketran has spent ample time evaluating options between gasoline, diesel fuel, propane and compressed natural gas.

While Laketran’s first order of propane-fueled Dial-a-Ride buses will be arriving this spring, there is not a propane engine powerful enough to operate the 35-foot transit buses, the agency stated in a news release.

The staff eliminated compressed natural gas due to cost and maintenance of a fueling station. Diesel fuel, while still the leading source in the industry, has the highest and most volatile fuel cost and emission standards continue to tighten, adding to increased maintenance costs.

According to the release, battery-powered electric buses offer a zero-emissions, quiet operation and better acceleration compared to traditional buses. They also eliminate infrastructure needed for an above street, constant grid connection like traditional electric trolley buses. Electric buses also allow routes to be modified without infrastructure changes.

“Electric buses are in a way a new technology, in a way a very old technology, but there have been some very significant changes in electric buses in the last 10 years,” said Laketran’s Deputy General Manager Ben Capelle. “Don’t picture traditional electronic trolley buses that are powered by wires amid the streets. The electric buses will be charged in under five minutes at transfer locations by fast chargers throughout the day.”

In February, California-based manufacturer Proterra completed a route analysis for Laketran including suitability study, installation and long-term maintenance costs.

Initial costs would also require installing three charging stations. These costs would occur with any new fueling option and the fuel saving for electric buses recovers the capital expense quicker than other type of fuel.

“The reduction in maintenance costs for electric buses is what makes them so attractive,” Capelle said. “They can easily yield a 40 percent annual savings and that’s over half a million dollars a year.”

With the potential purchasing of alternative fuel vehicles, the transit agency will be able to capitalize on federal and state funding opportunities used to incent systems using alternative fuels to help the community attain air quality standards.

Capelle said with a fleet of electric buses, Laketran will reduce its fuel cost from its operating budget funded with local sales tax, replacing the cost with capital expense for batteries that can be funded through various federal alternative fuel grants for low or no tailpipe emissions.

“And hopefully, we can shift that savings into putting more service on the road. Starting with propane and moving into electric-operated buses will also help with long-term planning because both fueling sources are more stable compared to diesel.”

Board President Brian Falkowski agreed with Capelle, affirming the agency is always looking for more efficient ways to operate and reduce cost.

“It’s easy to find the savings here,” he said. “We are not only going to save significant operating expenses over the life of these vehicles, but we are also improving the air quality for our residents here in Lake County. I think this technology is worth exploring for our future.”

According to the Federal Transit Administration, which funds 80 percent of heavy duty vehicles through Bus and Bus Facilities federal funding program, Laketran’s current local route bus fleet will extend past its useful life in 2021.

With battery-operated electric buses becoming a growing trend in bus replacement nationwide, Laketran would be the first transit system in Ohio to have 100 percent of its local route fleet to attain zero-emissions during operation.

The next step in exploring the feasibility of electronic buses will be discussions with area property owners about the placement of charging stations at key Laketran transfer centers, Capelle said.

“If we move forward with this, locations would include Lakeland (Community) College and the Great Lakes Mall.”

The heavy duty, low floor buses will remain similar size and capacity to today’s diesel fleet and serve the 315,000 annual riders on all six local routes.