Transitioning from niche to reality: revised EU legislation can foster mass replication of electric bus success stories

Electric bus is charging on a city street No rush of hot, dirty air from the back of this bus Credit: Thinkstock

Buses carry around half of all public transport passengers, accounting for around 8% of the EU’s transport emissions. As part of the effort to minimise the use of personal transport and transition towards cleaner cities, it is essential that the decarbonisation of buses begins rapidly. With this in mind, the EU-funded ZeEUS project (Zero Emission Urban Bus System) ran demonstrations of zero-emission buses in several European cities. The results were encouraging in both confirming the technological maturity and the public acceptance for the wider deployment of zero emission, electric buses. This gives us all the more reason to push for stronger policies in the ongoing revision of the Clean Vehicles Directive (CVD).

At the final ZeEUS conference, held earlier this week in Brussels as the project comes to a close, the cities which had volunteered to host zero-emission buses in their public transport system presented their results and future plans. A multitude of technologies were used, purposely, to determine the practicalities of the different methods of charging, heating, and operating the buses. The overwhelming sentiment was that the buses performed better than was expected and that both drivers and users reported satisfaction with the smoothness and silence of the ride. Particularly thankful were the residents living near the 24-hour bus services which used electric buses at night time.

Nevertheless, some critical issues were pointed out, especially in relation to the energy-demanding heating and cooling of the interior of buses. While some demonstrations resolved this by using conventional fuel to power the heating mechanism, others chose to pre-heat the buses at end-stations using grid-powered electricity. This was particularly tricky in Barcelona, which reported up to 40% higher consumption of energy during peak summer temperatures. In fact, the city reported so many technical challenges that it has decided to switch its efforts to Compressed Natural Gas (CNG).

How the Clean Vehicles Directive can help turn isolated success stories into mainstream

The EU clearly needs to step up its decarbonisation efforts to avoid the use of unclean technology, such as CNG. It is currently in the process of revising the CVD, which aims to encourage public procurement processes to consider the amount of pollutants to tackle urban air pollution.

The planned revision seeks to address the limitations of the existing CVD, and suggests the introduction of procurement targets for new vehicles which will have to meet the EU’s definition of a ‘clean’ vehicle. While Bellona welcomes the introduction of concrete procurement targets, an extension of the directive’s scope to cover more vehicle categories and the intention to define what qualifies as a ‘clean vehicle’, there is still ample of room for improvement.

For instance, in regards to heavy duty vehicles and buses, the definition of a ‘clean vehicle’ as it stands would be aligned with the range of technologies covered in the so-called EU Directive on Alternative Fuels Infrastructure, which include natural gas and synthetic fuels.

These fuels are anything but clean, and thus risk undermining the very objective of the CVD, which is to stimulate the market for clean, energy-efficient vehicles. In response to the prospect of an electric future, the European Commission was quizzed by some stakeholders as to the possibility of including ‘clean diesel’ from buses, which have not been marred by the dieselgate scandal. The stakeholder in question was of course a manufacturer of diesel vehicles. A previous Bellona report debunked the ‘cleanliness’ of synthetic fuels by outlining their high lifecycle emissions and intensive energy requirements. Meanwhile, natural gas still produces emissions of unwanted pollutants, such as NOx, CO2 and particulate matter. Electric buses produce no exhaust emissions; they are as clean as a vehicle can possibly be.

The EU’s justification for this oversight is the lack of emission standards for Heavy Duty Vehicles, which are also in the works. Nonetheless, for the CVD to live up to its name and to the EU’s climate targets, it should discourage the use of non-electric forms of public transport.

The demonstrations of electric buses in various EU cities have shown that zero-emission buses are not only feasible but also desirable. The presentation from Warsaw made a point of mentioning that electric buses were clearly the preferred method of powering the city’s public transport, with a strong reminder that an electric bus backed by a grid fuelled by coal would still be cleaner than a bus which meets the most stringent emission standards.

The European Commission will do well to resist thinly veiled attempts surrounding clean diesel and synthetic fuels to derail the overall intention of the Clean Vehicles Directive which is of course to reduce urban pollution and its health implications, while pushing public authorities to lead the market into a new industry of clean, zero-emission transport systems.

Strong regulation, standardisation and financial support will be key

Arguments against stringent targets made on the basis of competitiveness and exceeding technical barriers should not be taken lightly, the concerns of manufacturers and operators are real. The EU must establish a framework in which cities will want to procure clean, emission and pollution-free buses. There must be efforts to standardise charging points, heating facilities and safety regulations among others. Adequate levels of finance must also be provided. To prevent cities from seeking alternative technologies like synthetic fuels and natural gas, the definition of ‘clean’ must be changed to include only those without tailpipe emissions.

On the other hand, manufacturers must also realise that they risk being left behind if they fail to adapt to a public transport system which will inevitably shift towards electrification, whether they like it or not. Public health concerns, climate change targets and the proven feasibility of electric buses means the future of public mobility is indeed electric.


The second ZeEUS e-Bus report is available here

Bellona Europa