EXHAUSTED: Electric transit buses in Utah and the hope for a carbon neutral future

Feb 9, 2024, 8:24 AM | Updated: 9:09 am

SALT LAKE CITY — At first glance, the electric buses now buzzing around the Wasatch Front look much like their diesel brothers. Yet when one approaches, it’s noticeably quieter and “all-electric” marks the upper region of each bus’s exterior.

“The chief advantage for the state of Utah is we don’t have pollution in our airshed from electric buses,” claimed Hal Johnson, Utah Transit Authority’s director of innovative mobility.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, one zero-emission bus can eliminate 1,690 tons of carbon dioxide over its 12-year span.

More than 30 — 34 to be exact — all-electric buses are part of the 406 full-size bus fleet that UTA operates in Utah. The transit agency also employs 47 clean natural gas buses along its routes.

The number of electric buses currently running amounts to 8% of all buses.

According to UTA Executive Director Jay Fox, the transition to electric is deliberately measured.

“I would say we are being deliberate about how we enter this market,” Fox said. “Building a network that can support the electric buses is really important to get to what is known as a zero-emission plan as a whole.”

That plan eventually calls for a fleet where diesel buses make up about 50% of the total number. The other half would be natural gas and electric buses. Diesel buses can run all day without refueling while electric buses need a charge every 150 miles or so. Also, all-electric is not ideal for much of Utah’s challenging terrain.

And then there’s cost.

An all-electric bus comes in at $995,000 each, batteries not included. While natural gas and diesel buses price out in the $600,000 range.

Nonetheless, a carbon-neutral future may not be far off, according to Fox.

“You’re going to see a carbon-neutral focus for the coming Olympics,” he said, referring to the likely staging of an Olympic Games here in 2034.

Today, a few of those electric buses are monitoring our air in real-time. Researchers from the University of Utah are collecting air quality data from those buses to get a sense of the dynamic nature of pollution.

Atmospheric sciences professor Daniel Mendoza heads up the research program. The mobile units enable scientists to collect vital numbers from all over the region.

“The burden of air quality is not shared equally,” Mendoza said.

“So, for example, we’ve measured that on the west side of Salt Lake City, West Valley City as well, because they’re in closer proximity to the railroads, to the airport, to some industrial sources, to the highways, there’s just more air pollution. And this really doubles, or triples during inversion events.”

Minimizing UTA’s contributions to those events in the future is the hope of the agency’s leadership. The 10- to 15-year plan calls for as many as 200 buses to be all-electric. The carbon output would be significantly less as a result.

“So, any difference that we can make creates a better environment for all Utahns,” Fox said. “Makes us environmentally responsible. I have a personal stake in it as well. I want to breathe well. I’m sure all of our customers want to and all the residents here in the Wasatch Front.”

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EXHAUSTED: Electric transit buses in Utah and the hope for a carbon neutral future