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COMMENT: Cause for optimism over Ottawa’s move to electric buses

Photo: Mayor Jim Watson announces an electric bus pilot project in December, 2020. (Photo via Jim Watson/Twitter)

Moving Ottawa to zero-emission, battery-powered buses will be a net positive change for our city and its transit system, resulting in cleaner air, lower operating costs and a more modern city. 

Of course, how can we discuss the benefits without addressing the elephant in the room? The upfront cost is certainly hefty. When the City of Ottawa’s Transit Commission on Wednesday approved the e-bus project, the staff report they had in hand stated it would cost some $986 million. (Yes, the “$1-billion” headlines you’ve been seeing are the result of rounding off $14-million like it’s spare change. Sigh…) This price tag is not entirely for the cost of 450 new buses to be procured from 2022 to 2027 — it also includes all the necessary infrastructure to support these new buses, including charging equipment, electrical system upgrades at the St-Laurent garage and even a $14-million on-site backup gas generator. As I said, not cheap. 

But, is a high upfront expense a good reason not to undertake it? Methinks no. While improving our transit system’s environmental footprint is the main goal, the real attraction to me is the tradeoff between upfront cost and long-term operational savings. 

The buses sure do cost a chunk of change — $1.3 million for one 40-footer — but over their approximately 15-year service life, the city estimates that these buses would cost less to maintain and operate. Electric buses have fewer moving parts than their diesel counterparts, which reduces their maintenance requirements. Based on reports from other Canadian transit agencies who have e-buses, the City of Ottawa concluded there is an average expected savings of 33% on bus maintenance. Another way these buses will save money over the long run is through eliminating the cost of diesel fuel, which is more expensive than electricity. The expected overall cost savings will actually be how the City of Ottawa repays the Canada Infrastructure Bank’s $400 million loan towards this program. 

Keep in mind that a lot of the expense is one-time. Once the necessary charging infrastructure is in place, it will last a long time. As the city report says, “the high up-front costs of updating bus garages and initial bus purchases will be offset by long term savings.” Another factor is that the buses themselves may become less expensive as they become more commonly-used. The big advantage of going with battery-powered buses, the city has said, is that since it’s very common in the public transit industry, we can be assured of continuing R&D focussed on improving it over the coming years. 

There were some potential downsides mentioned in the report, of course. One that might pop out to some is that the batteries perform worse when it’s cold outside, so there are questions about outdoor storage of the buses and it is expected there will be some reduced capacity as well when the buses are being used in the cold. A small diesel heater will be included in the buses for comfort heating so that the battery is not wasted on electric heating. The city report is very honest about the pros and cons of the technology, which you can read for yourself if you’d like (opens a PDF). 

It’s fair to be skeptical over e-buses because it’s untested technology in Ottawa, but don’t let that get you too worried. Other transit agencies in Canada have electric buses, and nothing has gone horribly wrong. Additionally, the development of technology is generally considered to be exponential — and you can be sure we will see many developments to come to bus technology in the near future, which will likely aid in some of the most common challenges. We won’t be ordering the first buses until 2022. 

If all that doesn’t dip your chips, we also have the obvious environmental benefits. Fewer emissions, cleaner air, not too complicated. What’s not to like? E-buses are coming to Ottawa!


Devyn Barrie

Devyn Barrie is the publisher and editor of OttawaStart.com. He currently studies math and physics at the University of Ottawa, and holds a diploma in journalism from Algonquin College.