learning from China’s electric vehicle revolution

Originally published in the New Zealand Listener February 2020

China is leading the world in the electrification of public transport as it seeks to reduce carbon emissions and air pollution. New Zealand is a long way behind. Peter Griffin asks when we’ll finally see cleaner, quieter streets.

Rush hour in Shenzhen features the crawling traffic jams of buses, trucks and cars you’ll see in most Asian megacities.

But there’s one difference here – the traffic is quieter. In the city’s central business district, blue buses and taxis whir to a stop to pick up commuters heading home in the evening humidity. Many of the vehicles carry the logo of BYD Auto, the electric-bus maker that is headquartered in the city.

In 2018, Shenzhen became the first city in the world to electrify its entire bus fleet – more than 16,000 vehicles. Its 22,000 taxis are virtually all electric, too, part of a big push to decarbonise transport in the industrial centre, which is just across the border from Hong Kong and officially home to 12 million people, or 20 million when unregistered workers and part-time residents are taken into account.

China’s $21 trillion economy and the growth that has transformed Shenzhen from a fishing village to an electronics powerhouse in 30 years is chiefly fuelled by coal-fired power stations. China produces nearly 30% of global CO2 emissions.

Read more: Three technologies that could change public transport in NZ

Silent revolution. Photo/Peter Griffin/Listener

But it is also going green, spending large sums of money on wind, solar, hydro and nuclear energy to wean itself off coal, offering billions in subsidies for electric vehicles and infrastructure and cracking down on emissions.

A one-party state that plans a century ahead, China is simultaneously the best-equipped country to decarbonise quickly and the one with the biggest incentive to keep burning fossil fuels to maintain economic growth.

New Zealand has about 9500 diesel buses for everything from school runs to intercity coach services. A $12 billion infrastructure package announced by the Government this week went big on roading, which accounts for $5.3 billion of the $6.8 billion committed to transport. Rail received a significant boost, too, but with the exception of $371 million for the electrification of the 19km Papakura-Pukekohe line in South Auckland, there’s nothing specifically to decarbonise transport.

Our electric fleet amounts to a mere 20 or so buses and Wellington, with 11 of them, is a world away from Shenzhen’s electric revolution. But the capital’s electric bus story embodies the trials and tribulations all our cities are experiencing as they attempt to replace dirty diesel buses with clean electric ones in their efforts to go carbon neutral and reduce air pollution.

Photo/Getty Images

Looking to China

Tranzit Coachlines’ Rongotai depot is less than 100m from Wellington Airport’s runway. Jet engines rattle the room as Keven Snelgrove, the company’s co-owner and transport and operations director, gives his view on climate change.

“I’m a petrolhead at heart,” says Snelgrove, whose grandfather, Albert Snelgrove, founded Grey Bus Company in Masterton in 1924. “But if you are pouring out the emissions we have over the past 100 years, something is going to happen. I’ve converted to electric vehicles; they’re awesome.”

Tranzit has 1500 buses running city, regional and long-distance services, including the 10 double-decker electric buses plying routes in Wellington. It introduced the country’s first electric bus in 2018 to carry students to and from Auckland University of Technology (AUT).

The debut of the big green buses in the capital in July 2018 should have been a proud moment for the city. But they hit the roads just as the Greater Wellington Regional Council (GWRC), which controls public transport in the city and surrounds, rolled out major changes to its bus network.

The result was a “bustastrophe”. Unrealistic timetables, problems with the new real-time bus information service and a driver shortage saw long delays, commuter confusion and Wellingtonians’ love affair with public transport turn sour.

“It’s a crying shame,” says Snelgrove, upon reflection. “Things didn’t go right. But they were corrected a lot quicker than the media picked up on. It seemed like easy fodder, they wanted to beat the regional council up and beat us up.”

The quiet new buses were well received, but that goodwill evaporated when commuters ended up an hour or more late for work. It took the sheen off Tranzit’s ambitious electric-bus plan.

“Only three years ago, people said we were the village idiots. ‘Yeah, right, electric buses aren’t going to get up the hills in Wellington.’”

But Snelgrove and his team had been closely watching developments in China, where most of the world’s electric buses are both made and bought for local fleets.

Keven Snelgrove. Photo/Hagen Hopkins/Listener

Taking charge

Tranzit forged a relationship with Chinese bus maker CRRC Times Electric. Bus chassis and electric motors from CRRC are shipped to Tauranga where engineering firm Kiwi Bus Builders adds the body and electronics.

“Our vehicles have to be very light due to our road construction,” Snelgrove says.

“Kiwi Bus Builders uses high-tensile steel so it can use less of it. Our double-deckers weigh little more than a regular two-axle bus.”

The batteries powering the buses come from another Chinese company, CTAL, the world’s largest electric-vehicle battery maker. Battery technology is advancing rapidly, to the extent that every time Snelgrove visits China, a new battery bank weighing less and with greater capacity is available.

“Our first bus had 109 kilowatt-hours (kWh ) of energy and the batteries weighed 2.8 tonnes. The new ones have 191kWh and weigh 1.3 tonnes.”

An electric double-decker costs nearly $1 million compared with $700,000 for a new diesel bus.

Then there’s the infrastructure required to supply electricity to charge the buses. The double-deckers connect to fast-charging stations at Reef St in Island Bay, taking 8-12 minutes and the equivalent power of 100,000 cellphones being charged at once to recharge before they hit the road again for another circuit.

Tranzit will make significant savings over the 15-year life of the electric buses on the cost of diesel. Snelgrove likes to keep the buses at between 40-70% charge, to put less stress on the batteries. A full charge costs about $23, and by slow charging them overnight, Tranzit can take advantage of off-peak electricity rates.

Snelgrove says Tranzit will invest nearly $10 million in the next decade on charging infrastructure, including fast-charging stations at the busy Lambton Quay bus interchange. It will spend about $20 million on 22 new electric buses in the next two years as part of its contract with the regional council.

“It’s not cheap,” he says. “But we have been in business 94 years. We are a family-owned company that will invest for the long term.”

Tranzit has had two sizeable grants from the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority’s Low Emission Vehicles Contestable Fund, including nearly $370,000 to launch the first electric bus at AUT. Heavy electric vehicles also get an exemption from road-user charges until December 31, 2025, or until they make up 2% of the fleet, whichever comes first.

But there are no direct subsidies to lower the costs of buying new buses and converting old diesel buses, which Snelgrove sees as a key factor limiting electric uptake.

“The Government has to get serious and help local bodies fund some of this,” he says. “We have an electric bus for Palmerston North due on the road in May. That’s a 30-bus fleet and it has a tender coming out in 18 months’ time. I can’t see how a regional council such as Manawatū can afford to go for an electric fleet.”

Photo/Getty Images

Carrot and stick

The Shenzhen Bus Group, which operates more than 6000 buses and 4700 taxis in the city, went entirely electric in the space of a decade thanks to generous government subsidies.

“When we procured the buses, probably 50% of our costs were covered by a very complex subsidy regime,” says Hallie Liao, head of the international development department at Shenzhen Bus Group.

It was a mix of municipal and central government funding, with the subsidies tailing off over time, to encourage quick take-up.

“If we procure the buses now, 20-30% of the cost would be covered, which is why our management made the decision to procure them in bulk earlier,” says Liao.

At the same time, Shenzhen has been tightening regulations on emissions standards and vehicle noise limits, putting pressure on fleet owners to go electric.

The roll-out of electric buses followed seven years of testing and trialling of the vehicles and the infrastructure needed to run them, beginning in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics.

“We had to figure it out as we went,” says Liao. “Charging infrastructure, setting standards for the buses, route planning. So far, we are in a good place.”

It helped to have Chinese multinational BYD Auto as an eager supplier on the bus company’s doorstep. Each year, the Shenzhen Bus Group buses emit about 422,000 tonnes less CO2 than the diesel buses they replaced, saving nearly 150,000 tonnes of coal each year.

But therein lies a problem with China’s electric transformation – about 64% of its energy production still relies on coal, which is more carbon-intensive per unit of energy than burning petrol.

The situation is better in Shenzhen, which is fed by the state-owned China Southern Power Grid, which supplies more than 250 million people with power and draws just under half of its supply from clean sources, including nuclear, hydro, wind and solar generation.

The Shenzhen Bus Group became such a big electricity consumer that it was able to negotiate industrial-user rates with grid operators, reducing its costs further. Lowering emissions from transport may lower greenhouse-gas emissions overall – slowing climate change – but the real impetus was to fight air pollution, which was turning skies a dirty grey in some big cities.

“Shenzhen was never really that bad,” says Liao, who was born and raised in the city.

“Beijing and the northern part of China were really heavily polluted, especially in the 2000s. It hit a breaking point. You see a similar development with India right now.”

The removal of diesel buses means less dangerous particulate matter from tailpipe exhausts is released around the city as well as less sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.

Liao says the new buses went down well with passengers as a result.

“They are the happiest of the stakeholders involved. Usually, you would hear a lot of complaints around residential areas because diesel buses are incredibly loud and quite polluting. Now, when passengers wait for the buses, they don’t have to inhale any unhealthy elements.”

Shenzhen. Photo/Peter Griffin/Listener

Going backwards

If Tranzit’s electric double-deckers are reducing emissions and pollutants in Wellington, their introduction was undercut somewhat by the regional council’s move in 2017 to shut down the city’s electric trolley buses, operated by the region’s other major bus operator, NZ Bus.

The controversial justification by the regional council, headed by chair Fran Wilde, in 2014, when the decision was made, was that the electricity substations powering the trolleys would need to be upgraded at a cost of up to $52 million and the buses were too costly to maintain.

The decision was pitched as a move to go all-electric, with NZ Bus producing a plan to convert the trolley buses to hybrid diesel-electric motors as an interim step. But the technology didn’t work as planned. Earlier this month, more than 50 of the old buses were listed on Trade Me, some for as little as $10,000, destined for new lives as tiny homes and pie carts.

For commercial airline pilot Herwin Bongers and his family, who live opposite the bus interchange in the eastern suburb of Seatoun, the death of the trolley buses meant misery.

Whereas they had sat silently at the interchange before making their way west along the No 2 bus route, replacement diesel buses now rattle away leaving oily fumes in their wake.

“The effect has been quite dramatic, sitting across from the bus terminal and seeing the smoke as they idle away,” he says. “It has affected a lot of families along that stretch.”

Its impact has been more widely felt, according to the National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research (Niwa), which monitors air pollution at 1000 sites around the country. In an update of emissions readings released in December, Niwa scientist Ian Longley said that some of the emissions levels recorded along Wellington’s golden mile were comparable to the busiest parts of Auckland’s multi-lane motorway.

“It’s this combination of a small number of diesel vehicles and tall buildings, which are sheltering the street and stopping the air dispersing,” he told RNZ. “Given our isolation and windiness, we really should have the best urban air quality of almost anywhere in the world.”

Herwin Bongers. Photo/Gilly Tompsett/Supplied

A 10-year resident of Seatoun before the switch, Bongers and others in 2017 formed Re-Volt Wellington to push regional decision-makers to speed up the promised move to electric buses.

Re-Volt claims that the replacement of the trolley buses with relatively inefficient Euro III-standard buses brought down from Auckland saw emissions spike by up to 250% in Karori, Seatoun and other suburbs along the east-west route, and 20% overall.

Based on a report produced for the Greater Wellington Regional Council by Auckland air-quality consultancy Emission Impossible, Re-Volt estimates the social cost of the move at $2 million a year. Chemicals in diesel emissions and particulates can cause respiratory illnesses and are potentially carcinogenic. Bongers argues that the health system will ultimately shoulder the burden of ditching the trolley buses, which he says was an ill-conceived decision.

“There was a hybrid option that was voted down where we would have kept the trolleys on the east-west line, recognising that it was going to be difficult to switch quickly.

“But they wanted to do everything at once, a clean changeover. We saw the results of that with the bustastrophe. It became their undoing.”

Bongers acknowledges the irony of campaigning for electric buses when his day job sees him captaining jet planes burning thousands of litres of aviation gas on international flights.

“I recognise the optics of it,” he says. “When I buy my own ticket, I always pay for a carbon offset. It’s a choice I make, but I don’t think it should be voluntary. It should be mandatory.”

In his own industry, electric-powered jet planes are some way off. Electric turbo prop planes for regional flights may be ready for commercial use by the end of the decade. But electric-bus technology is available now and China is primed to feed the growing global appetite for buses. It is a question of who is willing to pay to go green.

Shenzhen buses. Photo/Peter Griffin/Listener

Getting to carbon neutral

The bus debacle was finally behind the GWRC last August when 32 councillors and senior council staff met to consider an emissions-reduction strategy for the council. Councillor Roger Blakeley chairs the transport committee. An electric-bus evangelist, he voted against the removal of the trolley buses, along with fellow councillors Sue Kedgley and Daran Ponter. The three were overruled.

The meeting was hosted by journalist and environmentalist Rod Oram, who had a clever strategy in mind to build consensus on a carbon-neutral target. Participants wrote their preferred target on a piece of paper, then discussed it with their neighbour. They’d settle on an agreed target, then discuss it in a group of four, then eight, then 16. When the two groups came together to finalise a target, they were on the same page.

“Much to my surprise, we all came up with a net-zero carbon-emissions target by 2030,” says Blakeley.

“It’s bold, given that the Government’s zero-carbon act is talking about 2050.”

The GRWC ratified the target at a meeting soon after and followed that by joining the Wellington Council, Kāpiti Coast District Council and other local bodies in declaring a climate emergency.

“I was elated,” says Blakeley. But now the complicated work of achieving the target begins. A 10-point plan from GRWC sees it tackling “corporate emissions” across its portfolio over the next decade – from planting more trees in the parks it is responsible for to restoring peatlands to act as carbon sinks and working with the management of CentrePort, of which the council is a controlling shareholder, to lower its emissions.

But greenhouse-gas emissions from buses account for about half of the regional council’s emissions footprint – nearly 16,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2e) in 2017-18. It is a small proportion of the Wellington region’s overall greenhouse-gas emissions of 1.4 million tCO2e, but with only 2% of the Wellington fleet of 462 buses currently electric, an uphill slog all the same.

The target included a 100% electric-bus fleet by 2030, but that has yet to be ratified. GWRC is in final negotiations with NZ Bus to introduce 52 electric buses to replace the diesel buses that Re-Volt has campaigned against. They will start to roll out later in the year. Tranzit will add 22 additional electric buses, so that the Wellington public bus fleet could rise to about 80 in the next two years, or 18% of the fleet.

“That’s ambitious by global standards, except for China,” says Blakeley. “We are ahead of any other city in New Zealand.”

He’s acutely aware of the air pollution issue, too.

“We have a major problem in terms of the health of Wellingtonians, which drives us towards getting those electric buses to replace the dirty diesel buses,” he says.

“We’ll want to, as quickly as possible, put those electric buses on the heavy lifting routes where we will have most impact on reducing carcinogenic emissions.”

It will take 16 new electric buses to service the No 2 route across the city. But a question mark hangs over how GWRC will push towards its 100% electric bus target. It has already signalled to the bus companies to which it contracts services that it won’t accept any new diesel buses on its streets.

Who pays?

Blakeley says the council has factored additional cost into its long-term planning, but detailed financial forecasting is still under way. GWRC funds its bus service from fares and ratepayer contributions, but 51% of the cost is subsidised by the New Zealand Transport Agency through a “funding assistance rate” that many local authorities receive. “There’s no explicit subsidy based on the cleanness of the vehicle,” Blakeley says.

“Obviously, the Government has been leading the charge with its zero-carbon act, so you’d expect policy would be supportive of councils that are proactive in terms of turning the dial faster towards 100% electric bus fleets.”

NZTA will probably have to stump up more to speed electric-bus uptake, as rate rises and fare increases will only be tolerated so far.

A big problem, says Snelgrove, is that tenders won by bus companies in the past five years involved them refreshing their  fleets with cleaner Euro V- or Euro VI-standard diesel buses. It is particularly acute in Auckland.

“Auckland Transport missed its chance; 70% of Auckland’s fleet is probably no older than 3-4 years. It’s a long time to replace them and when they do, where will they go?

Converting diesel buses to electric is an option Tranzit and others are considering, but it is costly – $300,000 for a diesel double-decker, says Snelgrove, who still hits the road most days to drive a circuit around the city.

On his trips to China he sometimes rides on trackless trams, which he sees as viable for mass transit in Wellington. Some of the trams are semi-autonomous, with the driver just monitoring the controls.

After three years of lobbying local politicians, Bongers is cautiously optimistic that cleaner and quieter buses will soon be pulling up to the Seatoun interchange.

“You hope for the best, but believe what you see,” he says.

Blakeley is confident Wellington buses can go all-electric in the next decade. He was chief planning officer for Auckland Council for five years, during which time he pushed for a target to double public transport trips in the city over a decade, from 70 million to 140 million trips.

“In 2012, Auckland Transport said it couldn’t be done, that it was outrageous. But believe it or not they are on track to meet the target by 2022, 10 years after we set the target,” he says.

“It’s about being bold in the target and then very deliberately figuring out how you are going to get there.”

Photo/Getty Images

Wiping the slate clean

Electrifying public transport is necessary in the face of a worldwide climate emergency.

Wellington – 11 electric buses

Tranzit Group introduced 10 double-decker buses in July 2018. Final negotiations are under way for it to introduce 22 more in 2020-21, while NZ Bus will have 51 buses to replace the 57 decommissioned electric trolley buses.

Target: A 100% electric bus fleet by 2030. No new diesel buses will be introduced from this point onwards. A climate emergency was declared by Greater Wellington Regional Council in August 2019.

Tauranga – Five

NZ Bus introduced five buses to its Bayhopper service in October 2019. They were made in China by Alexander Dennis Ltd (ADL), with a powertrain from BYD Auto. Each bus can carry 55 people (34 seated) and travel 200km on a single charge.

Target: “To reduce organisational greenhouse gases (except biogenic methane) to net-zero by 2050.” – Bay of Plenty Regional Council. A climate emergency was declared in July 2019.

Auckland – Four

In addition to Tranzit’s electric bus on the Auckland University of Technology route, three buses have been trialled by Auckland Transport (AT) on the 380 Airporter, InnerLink and 309 routes, with $500,000 funding from EECA. Two “extra-large” buses able to carry up to 78 passengers each will be available by August. Fullers-operated Waiheke Bus Company and AT plan to introduce six electric buses to the island by mid-year.

Target: An entirely low-emissions fleet by 2040 and only zero-emission buses bought from 2025. A climate emergency was declared in June 2019.

Christchurch – Three

Red Bus has three ADL/BYD Chinese-made buses operating on route 29 between the city’s bus interchange and Christchurch Airport. The buses reduce “exhaust emissions by 100%, energy used by 66% and CO2 emissions by 90% on the 29 route”, says Red Bus.

Target: “More than 40% of the vehicle fleet is low or zero-emission by 2025.” – Environment Canterbury. A climate emergency was declared in May 2019.