New Flyer of America, an arm of Canada-based transit bus manufacturer NFI Group, announced a new fuel cell-electric bus this week that could be produced at all its factories, including its plant in Anniston.
A press release from the company Tuesday states that the Xcelsior CHARGE H2, in both its 40- and 60-foot variants, passed the Federal Transit Authority’s Model Bus Testing Program, making the 60-foot version the first fuel cell-electric bus of its size to earn a pass, according to New Flyer. The bus has a range of 300 miles on a charge and can be refueled within 20 minutes depending on the model. The company is delivering 25 of the vehicles to California as part of its Climate Investments program, with the intent of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Lindy Norris, New Flyer’s director of marketing, said by phone Wednesday morning the vehicles could be produced at any of the company’s locations. The Anniston plant employs around 700 people, she said, and the company has invested about $50 million in the facility.
David Warren, New Flyer’s director of sustainable transportation, said by phone Thursday that the new H2 line might not translate into new jobs, but it would contribute to the health of the location.
He said that New Flyer produces more than electric and fuel cell buses, with products that include diesel, hybrid electric and compressed natural gas buses. As battery-powered buses become more popular, he said, he expects to see work remain consistent, but shift toward a focus on those vehicles.
“I think what’s more likely is we’re going to see a shift of the type of buses built in Anniston,” Warren said. “They’re all good types of buses, but more of them definitely will go to electric.”
Ben Fried, communications director of New York City-based transit advocacy group TransitCenter, said there’s strong interest in electric buses from major American transit agencies, especially Seattle and cities in California.
“Part of the appeal of electric buses is that in dense city neighborhoods with frequent bus service, there are real health benefits to switching from diesel buses to zero emissions buses,” Fried wrote in an email Wednesday evening. “In the long run, I expect this to strengthen the market for electric buses. They also provide a smoother ride for passengers.”
The vehicles have a higher up-front cost, but a Columbia University study of the New York City transit system in 2016 found that electric buses are “likely to be cost competitive over the lifecycle of the vehicle,” he wrote.
Fried did say that there are issues with the current generation of electric buses that might make them unsuitable for mass deployment. Los Angeles spent more than $330 million with Chinese battery maker BYD Ltd. in the decade leading up to May 2018, according to an Los Angeles Times story from that month Fried cited. Those vehicles were unreliable and required constant maintenance, according to Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority emails cited in the report. Fried also cited problems those buses had with climbing hills in the city.
Electric buses also have a reputation for being unreliable in cold weather, which drains the batteries, Fried explained.
He said TransitCenter recommends cities do their due diligence in research and hold back from large-scale electric bus purchases.
“It’s much smarter to buy a few vehicles from different manufacturers to test how durable they are before making large-scale procurements,” Fried wrote. “Electric buses are promising, but a reliable diesel bus carrying dozens of passengers is greener than a broken-down electric bus no one can ride.”
Warren said in response that the company’s electric buses are already operating in San Francisco, known for steep climbs in its roadways. He said New Flyer’s buses have standard-torque motors for flat areas, but in hilly locales, they can be outfitted with high-torque motors that transfer more power to the wheels. He said buses with high-torque motors are also already operating in California, Seattle and around the Rocky Mountains.
“There’s nothing about electric propulsion to prevent the bus from operating in rigorous conditions like high grade hills,” Warren said.
He said that cold and hot weather can reduce the range of a bus, though it’s an indirect problem: The energy drain comes from heating and cooling the bus, rather than the bus operating in cold weather. He said because the buses are electric, they don’t have combustion engines that generate heat used to warm the inside of the vehicle. Instead, the bus is warmed by electric heaters, which may shave some miles off the listed range of vehicles.
Warren said the trade of energy for climate control affects all electric vehicles, including smaller cars and trucks. He said his company informs customers ahead of purchase about the expected range in their area. With proper infrastructure for charging in locales with extreme climates, the reduced range issue can be effectively managed, he said.
“The nice thing about hydrogen is you can charge it in about six to 20 minutes; 20 minutes would be one of our larger buses and that’s completely empty. The smaller buses you can charge in about six minutes,” Warren said. “That’s quite different than a battery-electric vehicle because it typically takes hours to charge those types of buses.”