The microgrid will use energy sourced from solar panels in a bus depot, rather than the traditional electrical grid – the method used by most electric bus transit companies. The transition comes as jurisdictions across the country seek to electrify their bus fleets to combat climate change and amid financial windfalls from last year’s infrastructure bill that includes $109 billion for transit.
The push for the Maryland project stems from the county’s climate goals, which include converting its publicly owned vehicles to zero emissions by 2035. The county expects to add 10 electric buses to its existing fleet of more than 370 gas-powered buses buses by the end of the summer and expects to buy 100 more by the end of 2023.
The Brookville Bus Depot eventually up to 70 buses will be charged. The county intends to install microgrids in more of its bus depots to accommodate the growing fleet.
“This is something we need to do to meet our climate goals,” Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) said during a recent tour of the Brookville depot. “The power grid is clean. The cleaner the energy we source from, the more likely it is that we will be successful in reducing our overall greenhouse gas emissions. That is the goal.”
The county funded the project through a public-private partnership with Alpha Struxure, a joint venture between the Carlyle Group, an asset management company, and energy supplier Schneider Electric. Alpha Struxure provided the county with upfront money to purchase the microgrid infrastructure, then the county will pay back the company in monthly installments over 25 years using proceeds from the sale of electricity from the grid.
The county bought the buses with grants from the Federal Transit Administration, said Calvin Jones, department head of Montgomery County Fleet Management Services.
The Brookville Bus Depot will be the first microgrid in the county to be used for transportation, although the technology is being used elsewhere in Montgomery. The county’s public safety headquarters is powered by microgrids, while the county also plans to use microgrids on its Gaithersburg bus depot and his Animal service center.
Solar panels stretching across the bus depot will capture energy to charge the bus batteries. The microgrid can Store energy from solar panels, natural gas power generation and the utility, Jones said.
Nation’s neglected bus stops represent an early test for infrastructure money
The microgrid was also designed to withstand natural disasters and power grid disruptions.
The process of electrifying bus fleets across the country is “progressing slowly,” said Sebastian Castellanos, senior research associate at the World Resource Institute’s Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. The technology was available for years, but he said transit agencies need to go beyond tests and pilot programs and make deployments.
“Diesel engines and gasoline engines are very inefficient machines,” Castellanos said. “Even if the grid is not 100 percent clean, efficiency gains are usually enough to offset additional emissions from the grid.”
The biggest obstacle transit operators face when electrifying their fleets is the upfront cost, he said, adding that the Infrastructure Act — which will provide $5.6 billion to help agencies transition to low- or zero-emission buses and purchase maintenance infrastructure — will help help – will help.
The Metrobus system has committed to making its fleet of 1,500 buses zero-emission by 2045. The agency announced this in April it plans to buy 12 electric buses this year. Metro has a fully electric bus.
A public-private partnership may not make sense for all jurisdictions, Castellanos said. Larger jurisdictions willing to take on engineering projects might prefer to manage those projects themselves, he said, while others might benefit from paying a private company to handle the logistics.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, transport is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to rising temperatures. But as a sector, many of the world’s emissions come from passenger cars, making it difficult to apply comprehensive policies. Castellanos said eco-friendly policies that encourage transit “have the greatest value for money.”
“Transit buses in particular drive many more kilometers than a normal car,” he said. “Not only that, they carry a lot more passengers.”
Other transport companies are seeking similar partnerships to electrify fleets. Metrobus is considering public-private partnerships to support the transition to zero emissions. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the The Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) is one of the latest agencies to announce plans for a microgrid.
Transport companies are struggling to make ends meet. They are also preparing for record federal investments.
“I think we’re in a very similar position to Montgomery County,” said Adam Burger, senior transportation planner at VTA. “The difference is that the state of California requires all transit operators to transition to a zero-emission fleet by 2040, so that’s the fire among us.”
VTA is contracting with private companies and will pay for the microgrid infrastructure until the end of the project completion. The project is planned to be funded with a $4.7 million grant from the California Energy Commission.
“Many of our colleagues are running similar projects to ours and fortunately private industry is stepping up to be our partner in these things and to provide the expertise that we don’t have,” Burger said.
Externally, there are few differences between Montgomery County’s new electric buses and the existing diesel fleet, aside from their rounded edges and slightly smaller frame. But riding in an electric bus is a very different experience, both drivers and passengers say.
Andre Morrison, 53, a 29-year driver of Montgomery County’s Ride-On system, was the first to be assigned an electric bus route in 2019.
“The bus itself is a whole different ride,” he said. “It’s extremely quiet, so you know, it really throws you off at first. On the first day you really didn’t know what to expect because you didn’t know if the bus was coming in or out.”
He said drivers agreed that electric buses were more comfortable to drive. The suspension system of an electric bus minimizes jerks and impacts and relieves discomfort.
“Your body just doesn’t feel comfortable in a diesel bus,” he said. “It really feels like you’ve been in a boxing ring … when you get out of the seat, man, your body just hurts.”
Drivers have generally given Morrison positive feedback, he said. Most say so appreciate how quiet and smooth the ride is.
“The normal ones make noise – these don’t,” said David Johnson, 62, on one of the county’s four electric buses on a recent morning. “This is better. Smoother ride and much nicer.”
Morrison said he’s particularly looking forward to the county’s latest order for electric buses, which are a slightly larger model that will include updated safety and design features. He said the appeal of the buses goes beyond their new features and comfort: it’s a path to a greener future.
“This is the future as far as saving the planet goes,” he said. “This is where we should go.”