As the No. 28 bus waits at the red light at Victory Drive, it’s nearly silent. And as it accelerates north after the light turns, it spews not even one atom of carbon out its tailpipe.
In fact, it doesn’t have a tail pipe. It’s electric.
Chatham Area Transit added six electric buses to its existing fleet of 62 buses last month. It’s the first public transit on the Georgia coast to go electric and among the first in the state to do so.
Savannah Alderman Nick Palumbo took a ride on one of their inaugural trips just after Earth Day.
“They don’t have the tailpipes — zero emissions. They’re not going to be clogging up the streets with all of that,” he said in a recent Facebook Live session with constituents. “And, you know, it was one of the smoothest bus rides I’ve ever been on. There was no rumble, you could talk to everybody on the bus and you didn’t have to shout, even though we were jam packed in there. And very low noise, I was sitting right underneath the rear (motor) and near the back of the bus.”
CAT’s electric buses were a long time coming. In 2017, Atlanta-based Center for Transportation and the Environment evaluated the benefits of electric buses for CAT and determined the transition to electric would save CAT in terms of costs, energy use and air pollution in the long run, Mass Transit magazine reported last year. Federal grants to help make the purchase were announced in 2018 but the first bus didn’t arrive until 2021, and the first six didn’t hit the streets until April.
Upfront cost are steep. The buses, three Gillig 35-foot-long ones and three Gillig 40-foot-long ones, average almost $1 million each, about double the cost of a diesel bus. The charging infrastructure and electrical upgrades cost another $1.9 million. State and federal grants kicked in about $4.3 million of that total with the remainder from local sources.
The savings come in the long term. Electric buses cost less to operate and reduce emissions overall.
The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy calculates that each electric bus eliminates 1,690 tons of carbon dioxide over its lifespan compared to the use of a diesel-powered bus. Given the mix of fuels at power plants in the Southeast, an electric bus provides carbon dioxide emissions benefits similar to a diesel bus getting 11-15 mpg. That’s up to three times the typical transit bus performance of 4.8 mpg.
The transportation sector is the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses in the U.S. Greenhouse gases are those like carbon dioxide and methane that get trapped in the atmosphere and lead to increased warming.
In Chatham, three of the new electric buses are in use at a time, two on the 14 route that heads up and down Abercorn Street and one on the 28 route on Waters Avenue. The system keeps three in reserve in case they need swapping out.
It hasn’t been necessary in the first few weeks of operation.
“I think there was one day the operator may have forgotten the bus was on because it’s so quiet. And I think they pressed the (start) button and it it triggered a fault code,” said Patrick Fahey, CAT’s Safety, Security, & Risk Management Manager.
The buses take about 2.5 hours to charge and can run for about 220 miles between
charges. On its first day of operation the electric bus on the Abercorn route ran from 5:30 a.m. until 6 p.m. when it signaled its battery was getting low, said CAT Training Manager Jeff Swinton.
CAT installed charging stations at its bus lot on East Gwinnett Street to power the vehicles. In addition, CAT acquired a mobile charging trailer so that the electric buses can be charged in remote locations during hurricane evacuations and other emergencies. The mobile station can operate on diesel if the grid is down. The buses are also equipped with roof- mounted charging rails, which will eventually allow for overhead charging at equipped stops along bus routes.
Consulting company HDR is working on CAT’s long-term electric bus rollout plan to document the performance and operating costs of the battery-powered vehicles and ensure efficient deployment. The plan will help CAT prepare for the expansion of the emissions-free fleet, which could also include alternative technologies such as hydrogen powered vehicles..
Although Chatham Area Transit’s predecessor Savannah Street Railway began running electric streetcars in 1890, CAT like other mass transit systems in the U.S. has been slow to adopt electric buses.
The most recent numbers from the federal National Transit Database indicate in 2020 there were 1,268 electric buses operating at transit agencies across the country — out of 63,530 total buses. At the time, Georgia’s only mass transit electric buses were at the University of Georgia in Athens.
Atlanta’s MARTA system began running its first electric buses the same day as CAT. Like CAT, MARTA has six electric buses. Atlanta already has funds to purchase six more.