$986M electric bus transition gets go-ahead from Ottawa’s transit commission

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson speaks during an announcement at a public transit garage in Ottawa, Thursday March 4, 2021. The city's transit commission approved an electric bus transition plan at its meeting on Wednesday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Ottawa’s transit commission gave the green light Wednesday to a nearly $1-billion project that will see OC Transpo’s entire bus fleet replaced with zero-emission vehicles over the next 15 years.

The early stages of the plan, pitched as integral for Ottawa to meet city council’s stated goal of 100 per cent carbon emission reductions by 2040, will see 74 40-foot electric buses added to the transit agency’s fleet next year. That’s in addition to the four electric buses already slated to join the fleet this coming fall.

Read more: Ottawa plans to become 1st Canadian city with a fully electric bus fleet by 2036

After that, OC Transpo would buy electric buses or other zero-emission alternatives to replace existing vehicles that have aged out of their 15-year lifecycle.

OC Transpo transit planning director Pat Scrimgeour said in a presentation to the transit commission Wednesday that given the timelines to replace the current fleet, almost half the fleet could conceivably be zero-emission within the first five years of the transition.

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Half of Ottawa’s bus fleet could be zero-emission by 2026, according to a presentation from OC Transpo transit planning director Pat Scrimgeour. OC Transpo

Bus replacements will begin with the “widely available” 40-foot buses, Scimgeour said, as electric models for the 60-foot articulated and double-decker buses typically feature shorter ranges at this point in their development.

Electric buses will therefore begin rolling out on local and secondary routes across the city rather than transit corridors that are typically served by larger capacity buses, Scrimgeour said.

Buses will return to OC Transpo’s St-Laurent garage at the end of their shifts for refueling via an overhead charging station, which will be managed and installed by Hydro Ottawa. Future garages, such as one in the west end of the city, could also eventually have charging infrastructure installed.

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OC Transpo will only be buying long-range buses rather than short-range models that would require recharges at transit stations mid-route, which staff have flagged as the more expensive option.

City staff tasked with procurement will also keep an eye on temperature variability and how Ottawa’s harsh winters and humid summers could affect battery life on the buses. Some e-buses might initially require diesel heaters on board, though staff hope the technology will soon progress to the point at which electric heaters are feasible.

The project, pegged at a cost of $986 million, is contingent on securing a loan from the Canada Infrastructure Bank, which would cover the upfront premiums of buying the electric models over diesel standards, and a grant from Infrastructure Canada to cover 35-50 per cent of the costs.

The $400-million CIB loan would be paid back via operational savings over the lifetime of the electric buses.

“The transition costs would not have been affordable without those funding programs from the federal government,” said Ottawa transit boss John Manconi at Wednesday’s meeting.

The proposal had broad support at the transit commission and passed unanimously. It will move on to city council’s June 23 meeting for final approval.

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Citizen transit commissioner Michael Olsen said he was supportive of the zero-emission bus strategy but questioned why electric vehicles were the only plan presented in the report, rather than a cost comparison including hydrogen fuel cell options.

OC Transpo’s plan doesn’t preclude adding hydrogen fuel cell options to the fleet later in the transition, as those options also fall under the zero-emission strategy, Manconi said. But staff opted to begin the process with electric vehicles because the technology is better established in the industry as of now.

“We’re not closing the door on hydrogen forever. At some point you’ve got to pick a lane and jump in,” Manconi said.

If council adopts the strategy and staff are able to secure the funding commitments in the fall, Ottawa could be among the first cities in Canada to fully transition its fleet to zero-emission buses.

Click to play video: 'The Big Shift: Is Canada ready for the EV revolution?'
The Big Shift: Is Canada ready for the EV revolution?

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