Vehicle Electrification at ARC Smart City Forum

By Eddie Fidler

Technology Trends

As we often discuss on Smart City Viewpoints, drivers have been upgrading to electric mobility by the millions, yet some of the most exciting and impactful action is happening on the fleet and commercial side. Delivery vans and trucks, public transit, ride-hail, and even unexpected players such as construction fleets are moving in this direction, drawn by overwhelming benefits financial and otherwise. 

At ARC’s 25th annual Industry & City Forum, we were joined on our panel by three leaders in the EV space showcasing how vehicle electrification is becoming a reality, and how charging can be done in harmony with the broader energy system. This article will look at the presentation from Santa Clara VTA and partner ChargePoint on their electric bus and energy management system deployment.

Vehicle Electrification

Santa Clara VTA’s Electrification Journey

Gary Miskell is the Chief Innovation Officer at Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), servicing 32 million passenger trips a year across fifteen cities in northern California. In 2017, VTA and a team of partner companies won a grant from the California Energy Commission to deploy a small number of fully electric buses in their fleet. VTA purchased five Proterra buses, which they quickly expanded to ten. 

The experience has been positive for VTA. Even though electricity is notoriously expensive in California, the energy management platform (EMP) from partner ChargePoint was able to shift load to lower time-of-use (TOU) pricing periods. As Gary put it, “even though we may plug buses in earlier in the day when a bus may come back 5 or 6 o’clock, the EMP is level loading the charging, spreading it throughout the evening hours” and avoiding much of the higher TOU rates in the early evening while still providing the vehicles a full battery for pull out early the next morning.

The goal was not just to upgrade to new vehicles but to build out an intelligent deployment. VTA worked with partners to integrate the EMP with its existing fleet management and driver assignment solutions. This resulted in a system that considers what routes the buses will need to run each day, as well as upcoming real-world conditions - like weather or traffic and how that will impact energy use – as it delivers energy to the vehicles in the depot.  

This approach unifying scheduling, block assignments, and energy management has also generated rich system-wide data that the agency can use to better plan routing and charging of its fleet in the future.

Illustration of Bus Solar Canopy from Proterra
Illustration of Bus Solar Canopy from Proterra


Environmental Impact and Performance

VTA also partnered with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to study the drivetrain efficiency and environmental impact of the new vehicles using real-world data gathered from onboard sensors. They were able to leverage live power generation data from the utility to understand exactly what was in the generation mix during bus operation, enabling accurate “apples-to-apples” emissions comparisons. NREL found that switching a bus from diesel to BEV reduced CO2 emission by 84%, SOx by 100%, and NOx by 81% on average. VTA was also able to save 50% on fuel costs. Maintenance needs on EVs tend to be far lower than ICEVs as well, but since the buses in this deployment are still covered by warranty, VTA does not have data on cost savings here yet.

VTA and NREL found that driver behavior had a surprisingly large impact on energy efficiency and the range of vehicles as well. With this knowledge, VTA began providing drivers operator training, including detailed information on energy use and efficiency during their routes, and through a bit of gamification they were able to improve significantly over time – optimizing speed, how they approach stops, and use of regenerative braking. 

With such success, VTA plans to upgrade dozens of more vehicles in the coming years, with all 470 in the fleet upgraded to ZEVs by 2035, some of which may be powered by hydrogen fuel cells as well as lithium batteries. The agency plans to deploy bus depots with overhead charging, powered by a solar canopy utilizing battery storage to create a microgrid – storing the ample sunlight and using that to charge vehicles in the evening when TOU tariffs are high. VTA intends to produce almost all of its energy needs from on-premises solar. 

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