California Pushes For Electric Buses Over Natural Gas


One of Los Angeles Metro's first Battery Electric Transit Buses built by Southern California Electric Vehicle manufacturer BYD Motors

One of Los Angeles Metro’s first Battery Electric Transit Buses built by Southern California Electric Vehicle manufacturer BYD Motors

Fifteen years ago, California set strict tailpipe emissions standards, which resulted in replacing diesel buses withnatural gas (CNG).

With the current push to zero emissions and a set of incentives for electric buses, natural gas buses will likely share the fate of diesels.

The California Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition is afraid of CARB’s new favorite form of propulsion and is proposing to extend the definition to include renewable natural gas.

According to Reuters, 60% of buses in California are CNG, while nationwide the ratio stands at just 17%. California is the largest market for buses (one seventh of the 67,000 transit buses in US), so the California Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition is concerned about the future.

CARB will review the bus technologies next year.

In March, there were 22 all-electric buses in California and 7 hydrogen fuel cell buses. Not many, but it could change quick as CARB intends to throw $70 million in incentives out there this year.

Proterra electric bus

Proterra electric bus

Here is an interesting cost comparison:

“Battery electric buses typically cost about $800,000, compared with $525,000 for a natural gas bus and less than $500,000 for a diesel bus. Fuel cell buses currently cost about $1.3 million.

But electric bus advocates counter by citing the higher cost of natural gas. Fueling a natural gas bus costs about $27,000 annually, compared with $10,500 in electricity cost for an electric bus, according to CARB.”

Source: Reuters

Category: Bus

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49 responses to "California Pushes For Electric Buses Over Natural Gas"
  1. Anthony says:

    EV busses are a great idea, and its crazy to think that as batteries get much cheaper in the next five years and the prices of the busses come down, that it really wipes out the business case for NG and other bus types on all but the most demanding routes.

  2. kdawg says:

    “But electric bus advocates counter by citing the higher cost of natural gas. Fueling a natural gas bus costs about $27,000 annually, compared with $10,500 in electricity cost for an electric bus, according to CARB.”

    What does it cost to fuel a hydrogen-fuel-cell bus? Are those also subsidized?

    1. philip d says:

      “What does it cost to fuel a hydrogen-fuel-cell bus?”

      Only the hydrogen overlords know.

      I’m sure unsubsidized prices would be at least double the cost of diesel.

    2. JakeY says:

      I’m pretty sure it was horribly expensive (not just the fuel, but the maintenance). Canada cancelled their entire hydrogen bus fleet because it costed too much to run (even though the government payed for the cost of the buses themselves for the Olympics).

  3. Gsned57 says:

    It’s 16500 cheaper a year to run an electric bus but nearly 300,000 more so about 17 years to pay back the difference. I have to believe that in 5 years that cost differential gets much closer. Once it makes sense on its own economically the shift will happen everywhere

    1. TomArt says:

      There should also be less maintenance for the EV buses: brakes should last longer, little to no mechanical failures (or at least, very few points of potential failure), etc. Operational costs, besides “fuel”, should be considered.

  4. Tilehead says:

    A 17 year payback is not wonderful, but at least it is positive.

    On the other hand, the goal is lower emissions and cleaner air. Electric is the winner here.

    1. philip d says:

      I found multiple sources that seem to indicate that the average life expectancy of city buses are something in the range of 12 years and 250,000 miles.

      So the return on investment may not 100% be there yet but it’s getting close and the air quality benefit certainly is worth it.

      In 5 years when pack prices drop from $300 kWh to $150 kWh then it will be a no brainer.

      1. kdawg says:

        Seems like there would be less maintenance for an electric bus too. Does it use regenerative braking? How much does a brake-job for a bus cost?

      2. Ford Prefect says:

        A federally funded bus is required to last 12 years or 500,000 miles. Trolley buses were recently reduced to this same metric, but previously were expected to last about 16 years because of the electric motors.

        Even if a bus drops in cost, the infrastructure to charge the vehicle must also be taken into account. The Proterra charger is not cheap, it’s another $600K (last number I saw). The other thing you must take into account is that electric buses all use proprietary chargers at the moment, nothing is universal. So if you buy a Proterra bus, a BYD, a New Flyer, a Nova, a Gillig, and a rebuilt bus from Complete Coach Works you will have 6 different chargers to maintain in addition to the bus.

        So the bottom line is just because the price of the battery comes down doesn’t necessarily mean the price of the bus will necessarily get cheaper.

    2. Dave R says:

      Anyone who drives behind or near a large NGV vehicle can tell you that the emissions from those vehicles still smells considerably.

      I have to wonder just how clean are large NGV vehicles?

      1. sven says:

        What are you talking about? The emissions from CNG buses have absolutely no dedectible odor. I have ridden on CNG buses as part of my daily commute for years and there was absolutely no discernible odor when they pulled away from a bus stop or when I drove behind them (in a convertible no less).

        Does burning natural gas smell when you cook food on a NG stove or oven?

        1. Mikael says:

          Yes it smells. Not as bad as diesel though. And for all of us that very rarely come in contact with burning natural gas it’s a pretty distinct smell.

          It’s not a big problem though, the big problem is the burning of a fossil fuel.

          For buses it should be an easy choice to go all electric. And if it’s not easy enough then there should really be a carbon tax.

          1. Bill Howland says:

            Sounds like the “SMELL” you’re getting is due to defective, incomplete combustion equipment.

            In my house, which is about 200% solar powered electrically ( I really over did it on the solar panels ), my main electrical usage is recharging my 2 ev’s.

            CFL’s and LED lighting have greatly reduced the remaining electrical usage, as I have most other ‘heat requirements’ satisfied from very low cost (around $.025 for the entire past year, even assuming 80% efficiency overall for the following 8 gas appliances):

            1). Cooktop (98% efficient) (non-vented)
            2). Wall oven (98% efficient) (non-vented)
            3). Clothes dryer (98% efficient) (vented), but putting my nose outside near the ‘exhaust’ doesn’t yield any other smell than an electric dryer would have, probably because the burner has adequate combustion air, and, at 22,000 BTU/Hour it is relatively small.
            4). 40 gallon ‘old fashioned’ standing water heater tank (with added insultaion)
            5). 100,000 btu/hour 80% Efficiency furnace (verified 1/2 year ago by NYSERDA (80.6% eff tested)
            6) 125,000 btu/hour 76& Efficient Hot Tub heater, but then it is rarely used.
            7). 7,000 BTU/hour family room heater (non-vented) (98% efficient), that runs 24 hours a day during the winter time, and venting directly into the room, running all this time if there were anything noxious I’d sure smell it.
            8). 30,000 BTU non-vented living room gas log set – 98% efficient non-vented. The dealer where I bought it from says people always come to him – buying his pricey logset, since people who buy things at home depot and Lowes complain that they smell and they cant use them so they always come to him to buy the proper equipment.

            Now I do have an electric weber-style BBQ grille, and an all electric infrared sauna, but these use relatively few kwh’s per year.

            I mention all this to show that even ‘semi-modern’ (some would say the stuff I have is old-fashioned, since I don’t have ANY condensing equipment- unless you want to call the 98% efficient stuff ‘poor-man’s-condensing’) natural gas equipment can be very workable. My gas bills are HALF a friend’s similarly sized house where he only has a furnace and water heater, and absolutely everything else is electric.

            1. Mikael says:

              Well, it’s almost cheating when you know how to do things right. 😛

              I do hope that you will go all electric once the grid gets rid of the fossil fuel. But right now it’s most likely better that you use it at home and put the PV electricity out onto the grid (since I doubt that your states NG plants do co-generation?).

              1. Bill Howland says:

                If you are saying Mikael I’m getting relatively high value from the meager amount of Natural Gas that I’m using, then I’d say yes I believe I am.

                Although more modern techniques could produce higher efficiencies. For instance, my central air conditioning ia a standard 2 1/2 ton unit. There are 4 and 5 ton gas-fired heat pumps (ammonia-water), that have COPs of 0.9 when cooling and 1.4 to 1.65 when heating. So these units have acceptible air conditioning performance (they also use 900 watts of electricity while running, mostly to run the condensor fan, and solution pump)but have really low cost (since the natural gas is so cheap) ASTRNOMIC perfomance while heating, since an additional 40% to 65% of the heat comes from the outside air. So in the cold winter months, the system provides much more indoor heat than even comes from the gas flame, and the only down side is a relatively small electric consumption. The downside for me is that it is TWICE as large a system as I need, and no – one makes a smaller system.

                As far as electric busses go, since California gets most of its electricity from natural gas fired power plants, more natural gas will be used by BEV busses than by CNG busses for quite some time.

                Of course, looking forward 40 years from 40 years ago, California WAS supposed to have Dozens of Large Nuclear electric plants and the natural gas consumption of BEV busses would have been Nil. But now, California, while actually getting power from more than one nuclear plant out of state, actually generates In-state Nuclear power at the sole remaining aging diablo-canyon (i think that is its name) plant. So Natural Gas is going to be part of a BEV bus solution for a long time to come.

                Now to Ambulator, I never said the article claimed NG was worse than Diesel. I claimed that there are plenty of sources that state its much better: for instance, the prestigious CleanCities organization. They are lukewarm in their support of EV’s, but go GAGA over anything Propane, LNG, or CNG. If you disagree with their characterization of Natural Gas as a super-clean-green fuel, take the issue up with THEM.

                1. Ambulator says:

                  Then what did you mean by: “I disagree with the comment in the article basically equating the pollution of a Natural Gas fired vehicle with an oil-fired Vehicle (Diesel)”

                  What comment? Maybe I misunderstand.

                  (Electric busses? Is that when you kiss a bunch of people and get a static shock from each one? Perhaps you meant electric buses.)

                  1. Bill Howland says:

                    Well Im constan fighting Disccu. nonoappologifr (SP).
                    “…Fifteen years ago, California set strict tailpipe emissions standards, which resulted in replacing diesel buses withnatural gas (CNG).

                    With the current push to zero emissions and a set of incentives for electric buses, natural gas buses will likely share the fate of diesels
                    … ”

          2. sven says:

            It sounds like the CNG buses in your area are running on biogas with a lot of impurities, such as high levels of sulfur. The impurities can be taken out of the biogas before it is used to fuel a CNG bus (required in the US I believe), thus eliminating any odors. The engine on a CNG bus will still run smoothly if the impurities are left in the biogas, but might result in the odor you are experiencing.

        2. wavelet says:

          Uh, cooking gas doesn’t have an inherent smell… it is by nature odorless. It smells because it has artificial smell added to it, so people will be able to detect a leak quickly.

    3. sven says:

      Tilehead said: “On the other hand, the goal is lower emissions and cleaner air. Electric is the winner here.”

      Not necessarily. If as proposed, only “renewable natural gas” is used, then on a well-to-wheels basis CNG bus GHG emissions will be lower than BEV bus GHG emissions. Renewable natural gas would be the winner.

      Well-to-wheels GHG emissions is the green bar on the following graph from the Argonne National Labs GREET well-to-wheels GHG analysis:

      1. Pushmi-Pullyu says:

        “If as proposed, only ‘renewable natural gas’ is used, then on a well-to-wheels basis CNG bus GHG emissions will be lower than BEV bus GHG emissions. Renewable natural gas would be the winner.”

        Extending the same argument, if only electricity from renewable sources is used to charge the BEV bus, then the BEV would be the winner, as it’s much more efficient.

        BTW I don’t believe there’s any such thing as “renewable natural gas”. I suppose they mean methane, but there is no infrastructure for collecting methane and getting it to a fueling station without any use of fossil fuel. At the very least, the tanker truck carrying the methane to the fueling station will be burning diesel. We will hope at least they can do it more efficiently than the method used in Toyota’s “Powered by Bulls#!t” video, which involved using a diesel-powered Bobcat to load manure into a diesel dump truck, then transported coast-to-coast (diesel all the way) to a reforming plant, then transported via diesel tanker truck to the Southern state where the video was filmed!

        “Renewable”? Ummm… no. Rather far from it.

        1. Acevolt says:

          The Waste Management garbage trucks in my area are powered by land fill methane.

      2. JakeY says:

        Depends on what source of electricity you use. If they took that same landfill gas and used that to make electricity, BEV will likely still turn out cleaner.

  5. Steven says:

    Don’t regular busses use an pnuematic buffer for recuperating braking energy? So start-stop traffic a small amount of energy is recovered?
    I always noticed a very distint gear wining noise as soon city busses brake, as if something is turning very heavy. Could be a diff mounted brake perhaps 😛 but that is unlikely.

    1. Pushmi-Pullyu says:

      Steven asked:

      “Don’t regular busses use an pnuematic buffer for recuperating braking energy? So start-stop traffic a small amount of energy is recovered?”

      My guess is that you’re talking about air brakes, which are an old tech and definitely not stop/start. At any rate, using compressed air to capture energy would be very lossy. For example, using an underground cavern for compressed air energy storage is only around 40% efficient, and that’s for large-scale equipment. Something much smaller, such as on a bus, would be even more inefficient.

      1. Ambulator says:

        Storing compressed air in salt caverns is not the same. With an adiabatic air recovery system you can be quite efficient but the energy density is very low.

  6. Boris says:

    I don’t get why there is such a huge price difference between a diesel bus and an electric bus. 300kwh battery shouldn’t be be more than $120K, so what is the other $180K for?

    1. Pushmi-Pullyu says:

      Low production run = very high per-unit cost.

  7. Gabriel says:

    And battery buses will be replaced by supercapacitor ones.

    They are probably indicated for short inter-stop legs, once you cover every bus shelter with supercapacitors, fast charging between bus arrivals, as explained below:

    In France: “Bolloré Bluetram : Tramway à supercondensateur”

    In China: “Super Capacitor Buses, 90 seconds charging, cheaper than Lithium-ion battery”

    1. Ambulator says:

      Capacitors require expensive chargers and many of them. I prefer batteries.

  8. Taser54 says:

    Here come the Chinese buses.

    1. Taser54 says:

      I worte this because Protera, at $850k per bus, has priced itself out of the market, IMHO. BYD has priced their buses around $400k.

  9. Ford Prefect says:

    A federally funded bus is expected to last 12 years. There is no way that you can compare total costs using the numbers provided. One element that is not part of CARB’s quick numbers here is the cost of maintenance, that could make or break it for a fleet manager. Something CARB never quite comprehends is that transit agencies don’t have unlimited amounts of money to suddenly go out and buy the latest stuff, a transit agency cannot trade in their old bus for credit on the new one like you would get through an iPhone exchange at your wireless carrier; once its bought, it belongs to the transit agency!

  10. MikeM says:

    Did I just read the fateful words: “Renewable Natural Gas”?
    Or was I just having a “Clean Coal” inspired fantasy moment?

    Anyone know what this means?

      1. MikeM says:

        Well, label me aghast!

    1. Mikael says:

      Most likely just regular biogas. =)

      Which you can get from landfills (for those countries that still have landfills) or from any anaerobic digestion.

      Or rather it’s upgraded biogas, upgraded to “natural gas” and therefor basically renewable biogas.

      It’s what they run almost all of the buses where I live on. But they are getting old enough to start to be replaced and hopefully it will be mostly or even all electric then.

  11. Pushmi-Pullyu says:

    “Renewable natural gas”. But natural gas is a fossil fuel. So what did they mean? “Synthetic natural gas” would be an oxymoron! Perhaps they mean synthetically produced methane or even hydrogen fuel.

    Anyway, glad to see they’re moving to EVs. Natural gas is significantly less polluting than gasoline, but it’s still burning fossil fuel and it still produces pollution.

    1. ItsNotAboutTheMoney says:


      Gas produced by decaying organic material. You end up with wet biogas that has other gases mixed in, which can then be processed to get rid of most of the other stuff and leave the methane.

      A few years ago it was estimated that the USA could get 6% of its natural gas from landfill, farm waste and sewage. It’s not surprising to find trash trucks run on landfill gas.

      I expect biomethane and synthesized methane to be a part of any renewable future.

  12. TomArt says:

    This is great news! The fundamental flaw is combustion – it is incomplete and most of the resulting exhaust is polluting in one way or another. The fuel acquisition, processing and delivery is also very wasteful and polluting.

    As has been discussed before, fleet operations with known routes are perfect for the limitations of today’s battery technology.

  13. Bill Howland says:

    This brings to the fore several questions.

    Where I am, Natural Gas, by heat content, is much lower in price than even industrial priced electricity, and is even cheaper than the ‘free’ solar panel electricity I make on my roof, this year averaging $.0357 / kwh.

    Commodity gas is currently under $.010 / kwh.

    I’m not sure the distribution charge to the bus station, and, of course there is also the compression cost or the liquification cost if these Gas fired busses are going to be CNG or LNG, respectively, but then they also can be Gas-fired conversion equipment to save costs. Also, even though EV bus companies constantly fight it, they really should pay demand charges the same as any other commercial customer, the same way as any other ‘good cause’ customer has to pay their way the same as everyone else. Since there are rarely any demand charges with Natural Gas, this is another direct saving for Natural Gas Bussing. I’m fully in favor of Electrics replacing smelly Diesel Busses. I don’t see much benefit in throwing out Natural Gas busses (which, as mentioned, prestigious authorities go GAGA over how ‘clean’ they are), when there are still the vast majority Diesel Busses around along with their requisite Particulate Polution making Children Sick. London and Paris have belatedly come to the conclusion that incentivising Diesel in Europe was very wrong headed, and now the incentives will change to ‘Diesel-less’ alternatives.

    The variable is that Natural Gas may cost much more in California than it does in Western NY, but then any huge disparity seems unbelievable.
    I’d have to defer to PG&E GAS customers here to tell me the retail rates for both residential, and industrial-sized users of gas. Maybe since their Electricity is so ridiculously overpriced, maybe the natural gas is also.

    I disagree with the comment in the article basically equating the polution of a Natural Gas fired vehicle with an oil-fired Vehicle (Diesel)

    Paris and London, have put restrictions on Diesel powered vehicles, in view of the high resultant particulate polution making children sick. There isn’t the same detriment with Natural Gas fired vehicles, as the prestigious CleanCITIES green-group always lauds any Diesel to CNG or LNG conversions.

    1. Ambulator says:

      I don’t see anywhere where it’s stated that CNG buses are worse than diesel buses. For many local bus routes electric buses should be favored when new equipment is purchased. Eventually that may change to all bus routes, but not yet.

      I do find the focus on renewable natural gas silly, just as I do for hydrogen from renewable methane. There is a limited amount of that available, and it won’t be enough for everything.

      1. Mikael says:

        It would be silly to think that all vehicles could run on biogas.
        But the important thing is rather to make sure that you get all the biogas possible from all the different sources of waste. Land fills, sewage plants, wasted food etc.

        Reduce, reuse, recycle. 🙂

      2. Bill Howland says:

        “CNG buses are worse than Diesels”.

        You must have just made that up. No one has said that.

        If you don’t like CNG then argue the point with the CleanCities group. They seem to be the most influential nationwide.

        You’ve got your work cut out for you. It will take much politicing to change their minds since they are lukewarm toward evs but go gaga over anything CNG, LNG, or propane.

    2. Mikael says:

      It’s all about taking steps toward phasing out fossil fuels.
      But In a state like CA where the electricity is still very dirty it makes little sense unless you add your own non-fossil generation capacity.

      And it will take a lot more than the 10-12 years lifetime of the bus to clean up the Californian grid.

      But then again, it would be slightly better so why not start the transition now to have everything worked out…

  14. SparkEV says:

    For $800K, you can give $10K additional EV subsidy to 80 poor people rather than cramming them into bus. SparkEV would then be $25K-7.5K-4K-10K=$3.5K. They can also work part time for Uber/Lyft for extra money. You also avoid losing money by having empty busses that you see all too often. Of course, gov’t want poor people to suffer, even if it costs more to taxpayers.

    1. Craig Capurso says:

      The tax payers in California just keep paying and paying so the state will keep spending and spending it is like feeding ferrel cats.