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SFMTA on the road to an all-electric fleet

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The San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency had its first official test drive of a battery-powered electric bus on June 12. (Courtesy SFMTA)

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Last Tuesday, a crowd of City employees (and one lucky columnist) hit San Francisco’s streets in a big, green transit-machine. The event marked the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s first, official test drive of an electric bus. The City recently joined numerous other municipalities across the country committed to ditching diesel and electrifying their fleets.

The vehicle, manufactured by New Flyer, has a range of approximately 250 miles between charges. For 30 minutes, it shuttled 15-20 passengers around the west side of The City. According to the driver, the bus’s battery was at 84 percent when it left Hayward and had only decreased a little when it dropped us off on South Van Ness and Market streets. Importantly, everyone seemed to enjoy the ride.

“Very quiet, very smooth,” John Haley, director of transit at SFMTA, told me. “It didn’t sound like the bus was straining up any hills.”

As The City works to electrify SFMTA’s fleet by 2035, more San Franciscans will have a chance to form their own opinions. Currently, SFMTA is developing a request for proposals. Next year, it plans to test electric buses in revenue service.

But purchasing new buses isn’t SFMTA’s only option. The agency is also exploring removing the engine from its existing diesel hybrids. While no other large transit agency has converted its fleet to electric this way, the advanced battery technology in SFMTA’s new hybrids may make it possible and put San Francisco on the road to electrifying its fleet before the 2035 target.

Unlike other fleets, SFMTA’s new hybrid buses have high-capacity battery systems. Their long range enables drivers to take San Franciscans around The City on battery power alone. Already, the agency in working to designate “Green Zones,” or areas of high pollution, where drivers will be required to turn off the engine.

According to industry experts, converting SFMTA’s hybrid buses may be as easy as taking out the engine, adding additional batteries and updating the software. Bill Van Amburg, executive vice president at the transportation nonprofit CALSTART, said it’s not an unknown process in the bus world.

“Muni is facing a unique situation that many transit properties don’t have,” he told me. “It has a relatively large fleet of diesel-electric hybrids. They are already halfway there.”

Other smaller California transit agencies, like Montebello, Gardena and Monterey-Salinas, have converted portions of their fleet. Complete Coach Works, a company based in Southern California, provides the service. While adding additional batteries raises design challenges, Dale Carson, the company’s president, told me the process could be cheaper than buying new.

The process could also allow SFMTA to expedite its zero-emission goal. The current procurement schedule for new buses is 12 years. But converting existing hybrids could turn over the fleet in half the time. SFMTA representatives said it could take between 18 to 24 months to have a product ready to test.

“The Board asked us to set a policy, but we’d like to think with some of the battery technology and conversion work, we can go much faster,” Haley told me.

Faster is critical. Last week, a new study revealed Antarctica’s ice sheet is melting at an alarming rate and raising sea levels. The climate is changing rapidly and San Francisco’s future is at stake.

California agencies are incentivizing and pushing transit agencies to respond. Last month, the California Public Utilities Commission reached a deal with private utilities, including Pacific Gas & Electric, to develop new charging stations. This September, the California Air Resources Board will also vote on the Innovative Clean Transit measure that would require all public transit agencies in the state to develop zero-emission fleets by 2040.

San Francisco is already on its way to exceed this target by five years. But innovative ideas, like converting existing hybrids, could help The City ditch diesel faster and cheaper. It would be a tremendous win for San Franciscans’ health and the environment.

“It’s exciting that SFMTA is turning things around and being creative in electrifying its bus fleet quickly and inexpensively,” said Nick Josefowitz, a long-time advocate for electric buses and a candidate for District 2 supervisor. “This shows that we can be ambitious about setting aggressive climate goals for our City, and we have the talent and creativity to deliver on them.”

GREEN SPACE Q&A

How are we supposed to dispose of electronics that don’t work anymore? – Carleton Hoffman

The variety and availability of small electronics can be both a blessing and a curse. Lamps, monitors and space heaters bring comfort and joy to our lives. Electric can-openers and carvers make daily tasks easier. But these devices also break quickly and can contain hazardous and toxic components, like lithium batteries.

According to a 2014 United Nations University report, the global quantity of e-waste generated was around 41.8 megatons. Unfortunately, the number is growing rapidly.

It would be better for the environment and the wallet if San Franciscans could fix their broken devices. In Europe, many owners can take their electronics to Repair Cafés to get the help they need. While some Repair Cafés exist in Northern California, there are none in The City.

Until then, San Francisco residents can recycle their e-waste through Recology’s Bulky Item Recycling program. Go online or call the company to arrange for a pickup.

Don’t know what bin it goes in? Email sorting questions to bluegreenorblack@gmail.com.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.

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