Capital Area Transit System buses use 2,000 gallons of fuel per day, drinking up more than 785,000 gallons last year. So it’s no wonder the public bus agency is looking for alternative fuel options to reduce both its fuel costs and its environmental footprint.
Earlier this year, CATS leadership commissioned a $91,000 study from the University of New Orleans Transportation Institute to conduct a cost-benefits analysis of various alternative fuel options.
The committee ultimately recommended a long-term transition to electric buses — the option easiest on the environment with zero tailpipe emissions but with the greatest financial barrier to entry.
The report will be presented to the CATS board at its monthly meeting Tuesday.
The report considers a variety of technologies, including those using biodiesel, compressed natural gas or liquefied natural gas, as well as electric and hybrids.
The research weighs both tail pipe emissions as well as the cost of infrastructure to support the new technology and expected savings by making the conversion.
The report notes that the initial infrastructure for almost all of the options is expensive, so it doesn’t offer a clear short-term plan, because funding would be a major issue.
But in the long term, the report says, moving toward an electric fleet would have the most positive impact on the environment and generate substantial savings in years to come.
“Electric buses are clearly the best choice in regards to emissions and pollution. They have zero tailpipe emissions,” the report states. “They are also the most capital-intensive option.”
Electric buses cost almost twice as much as diesel buses. But the report notes that the electric vehicle industry is in its infancy, and prices could go down over the next few years. The report also says that once the infrastructure is in place, electric buses, of all the alternative fuel options, are the cheapest to operate and to maintain.
“The savings in fuel and maintenance costs can actually save CATS money over the course of 30 years despite the high capital expense associated with electric,” the report states.
A regular diesel bus, the kind CATS currently uses, costs about $430,000. A compressed natural gas bus, commonly referred to as CNG, costs $550,000 on average. An electric bus costs $800,000.
CATS would need to build five charging stations for the buses if it switches to electric, one at each of its transfer points, at a cost of about $600,000 each.
CATS CEO Bob Mirabito said federal grant allocations to purchase new buses are forcing the agency to move in a greener direction.
He said CATS currently receives only $500,000 a year in discretionary federal aid to purchase buses, which is enough for one bus per year. But the agency is eligible for $15 million in federal grants over the next four years for improvements that aim to improve air quality.
So, if CATS wants to purchase new buses, it may have to buy a more expensive alternative-fuel bus because of the mandates of the funding sources.
CATS also has an old fleet of buses, many of which are in disrepair. It has 43 buses that will need to be replaced within the next five years, according to the report.
In the short term, the report recommends that CATS start moving toward hybrid diesel-electric buses and begin retrofitting the undersized maintenance garage on Florida Boulevard to accommodate the new technology.
The report also recommends making a short-term switch to biodiesel fuels, developed from organic resources such as cooking oil, municipal waste or plant and animal materials. Biodiesel is similarly priced to diesel fuel but has lower emissions and is nontoxic. But they can be difficult to source, generate no savings and could affect the manufacturer’s warranty on engines.
Mirabito said no options are off the table and the next step is for leadership to consider crafting a long-term plan.
“Now that we have some facts, we can sit down with the board and the leadership group and put a road map together,” he said.
Ann Shaneyfelt, executive director of Louisiana Clean Fuels, said cities and transit authorities often utilize a combination of alternative fuel sources in a fleet.
“Having a diversified portfolio of fuels in their fleets helps them respond to market changes,” she said. “Route lengths, the number of stops, miles driven per day, these are all factors that can call for different fueling and vehicle solutions. Electric vehicles can be a great part of this mix, but biofuels and CNG are also good options.”
She said it’s important that CATS is considering alternative-fuel solutions, considering the federal government is likely to impose stricter air ozone standards this year.
“If (the standards) come out as low as we think they might, then this would be very helpful to the city of Baton Rouge,” Shaneyfelt said. “We need these kinds of projects.”
Baton Rouge is lagging behind cities like Lafayette and Shreveport, which have made moves in recent years to implement CNG fleets. But electric is an even more foreign option for the state.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s fuel station locator, Louisiana has only 40 total charging outlets for electric vehicles. In the South, Texas has about 1,500 outlets, and Georgia has more than 600 outlets. California has more than 6,000 outlets, and New York has almost 1,000.
In Baton Rouge, Whole Foods Market on Corporate Boulevard began offering free electric-vehicle charging for customers in 2013. LSU has also had some charging stations, available to students, staff and faculty, since 2011.