Electric Buses: Safe and Green

Photo courtesy BYD.

by Thomas P. Healy

Mass transit’s momentum continued in 2017 as IndyGo prepares for the largest, most comprehensive upgrade to its services since a public corporation was established in 1975 to provide transit services.

According to IndyGo, the new fleet of electric BRT vehicles for the Red Line is manufactured in Lancaster, California, by BYD Coach & Bus LLC. The American affiliate of China-based BYD Company Ltd., BYD has a high percentage of American shareholders, according to Macy Neshati, U.S. senior vice president of heavy industries. “Sixty percent of shares are owned by U.S. investors,” he said in a phone interview. “FTA has strict ‘Buy American’ guidelines for buses purchased with federal funds,” he added. “Ours is 76 percent and we cannot include assembly labor in the ‘Buy American’ content.”

Neshati said the company’s innovative iron-phosphate chemistry in its batteries is fire safe. “It is the most thermally stable battery you can get. It will not explode if you put it in direct flames,” he said. “Our number-one priority has always been human lives and safety. We won’t sacrifice range or performance by sacrificing safety.”

He said the company has subjected its batteries to rigorous testing protocols that checked reliability in extreme temperature variations, in salty conditions, and under intense pressure (to simulate crushing). “The battery will not catch on fire no matter what happens to it.”

Additionally, Neshati says the BYD battery is environmentally friendly. “Our electrolyte is completely recyclable and our battery can be completely dissembled and recycled without any harm to the environment,” he said. “We’re going to warranty the battery for 12 years but it has a 20-year life cycle.” Once the battery is retired from use on a bus, he said it still has sufficient capacity to be repurposed as a battery storage container for a solar array for another 20 years.

TRAINING

Despite such assurances, there are some who fear the widespread deployment of electric batteries as a fire hazard. Andrew Klock doesn’t share that fear. He’s a senior project manager for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) in Quincy, Massachusetts. “For eight years I’ve been teaching first responders and second responders—tow truck drivers, crash reconstruction specials, fire investigation community, et cetera—how to effectively deal with fires with electric vehicles,” he said.

He said that according to NFPA statistics, there’s a vehicle fire every 2 minutes in the United States, and the majority of those are in internal combustion engines (ICE). “If hundreds of vehicles a day catch fire, you don’t hear about that in the media but if an electric vehicle catches fire, that’s all over the media and on the nightly news,” Klock said. “I don’t think electric vehicles are any more dangerous than ICE vehicles.” The difference, Klock said, is that emergency responders have had more than a century to learn to deal with ICE incidents. “As long as the responder community is properly trained, I’d say it’s equally safe,” he said. “Electric buses are not any more dangerous than conventional diesel or hybrids.”

According to Battalion Chief Rita Reith, public information officer for the Indianapolis Fire Department (IFD), the department received training with the electric car-rental company BlueIndy when it first arrived in 2015. “Alternative fuel vehicles are part of our annual training,” she said. “Training for the Red Line will occur prior to it going in service.”

EXPERIENCE

Indianapolis will not be the first electric bus rapid transit line in the country now that ART electric buses began service in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in late November using BYD buses. While it’s too early to tell how the buses perform, another transit agency’s experience might be helpful.

Antelope Valley is about 75 miles north of Los Angeles on the edge of the Mojave Desert. Mark Perry is director of fleet and facilities for Antelope Valley Transit Authority, which is making the transition to all-electric buses. “We hope to have the entire 75-bus fleet electric by the end of 2018,” Perry said in a recent interview.

Beginning with a 2014 pilot program of two 40-foot BYD buses manufactured in nearby Lancaster, Perry brought in the fire department, sheriff, and transit officer for training. “We showed them where the batteries are and went through how they can shut the bus down,” he said. “There’s not a place on the bus that they can’t water down; passenger safety is more important than the bus.” Perry said the training went well. And the batteries? “There can be thermal events for lithium ion batteries but these are iron phosphate batteries. Since August 2014 we have never had a thermal battery issue.” Even in the desert, high temperatures didn’t affect the battery. “We’ve seen very insignificant temperature issues,” he said.

In October, five 60-foot articulated buses like the ones selected for the Red Line were placed in service, Perry said. Other than annoying little things that he characterized as “new bus blues,” Perry is pleased. “We’ve had a lot of support from BYD since they’re very close to us. They can tackle these bugs and apply what they’ve learned to the buses for Indy.”

“We haven’t had any safety issues and no serious major mechanical issues,” he added. “I’m not concerned about BYD’s product.”

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