Lawrence and Douglas County

Lawrence and Douglas county

Buses may dump the pump

New generation of mass transit employs alternate sources for power

September 4, 2006


Don't ask Cliff Galante, director of the city's public transit system, for the fuel mileage on one of his big diesel buses. It's not a statistic he figures often because he knows it always produces a discouraging number.

"With big diesel engines like that, you always get less than 10 miles per gallon," Galante said. "They aren't really made for fuel efficiency."

But if work that rural Lawrence resident Karl Birns is conducting becomes successful, transit operators everywhere may have a new answer when asked how many miles they can get to the gallon: As many as you want.

Birns, director of research for the Metropolitan Energy Center in Kansas City, Mo., is among a group of transportation leaders developing a new generation of electric buses.

They're called hybrid-electric plug-ins, which are different than most electric buses on the market and the hybrid cars and trucks available at auto dealerships. Most hybrid vehicles rely on a gasoline or diesel engine to recharge their batteries as they're being used.

A plug-in hybrid, though, theoretically doesn't have to use any petroleum-based fuel. Instead, the vehicle is just plugged into a conventional 110 volt or 220 volt outlet and is recharged overnight.

The vehicles aren't just pie-in-the-sky ideas drawn up on an engineer's chalkboard. A prototype of the bus - the first in the country - is scheduled to arrive from a DaimlerChrysler factory in Germany in the next couple of weeks. It will be put into service in Lawrence's backyard by the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority.

Lawrence Transit System driver Debra Rodman, Perry, logs mileage into her notebook. City officials are beginning to research energy-efficient buses now in development.

Lawrence Transit System driver Debra Rodman, Perry, logs mileage into her notebook. City officials are beginning to research energy-efficient buses now in development.

"We're going to put it through the paces and really check it out," Birns said. "But I think this has a lot of potential in the world of transit."

Lawrence watching

More specifically, the technology may have a future in Lawrence. Birns and the project's partners - which also include the Federal Transit Administration, Electric Power Research Institute and various Kansas University departments that will conduct air-quality testing - are lobbying Congress for an additional $1 million in funding.

If that funding materializes, Birns said it is possible another bus could end up in Lawrence to test how it performs in a less urban environment.

Several city commissioners would love for the community to be a guinea pig.

"Lawrence is the type of community that should be on the cutting edge of something like this," City Commissioner Boog Highberger said. "We should be leaders in this area."

City leaders are particularly interested in new bus technology because the city will be in the bus-buying business during the next several years.

The city's current fleet of 12 fixed-route transit buses have about 220,000 miles on them. Galante said the 5-year-old vehicles are rated for 350,000 miles, and he estimates the city will need to begin replacing the buses in about three years.

That won't be cheap. Heavy-duty diesel buses - the kind that Galante said he most likely would recommend - cost about $320,000 apiece. Medium-duty diesel buses, the kind the city owns now, are in the mid- to upper $200,000 price range.

Some city commissioners are saying they want to make sure that Galante gives a strong look at alternative fuel buses, which can cost 10 percent to 15 percent more than traditional buses but are thought to have lower operating costs.

"At the moment, I can't imagine why we wouldn't want to do this," said City Commissioner David Schauner, though he said the city obviously would need to do more research.

Galante said he has no problem looking at the possibilities.

"We're enthusiastic about it," Galante said. "But ultimately it always comes down to cost and reliability when you are looking at alternative energy."

Production plans

Some of it may come down to timing as well. The bus that Birns is working on likely wouldn't be available for production before 2010.

There's also much to learn about how the buses will perform in the real world. For example, Birns notes that a plug-in hybrid bus theoretically could run without burning any fossil fuels. But that's not the way it is expected to work in practice.

The prototype bus is equipped with a diesel engine to supplement the power of the electric engine during peak demand. Without the diesel engine, the bus' batteries likely would last only for about 40 miles.

Lawrence leaders, though, will have plenty of other options to consider. There currently are buses that burn propane, natural gas or biodiesel, which is a type of diesel produced from soybeans or corn. The largest movement in the transit industry, however, is the use of traditional hybrid-electric buses that use a diesel engine to recharge their batteries.

According to a 2005 report by the U.S. Department of Transportation, about 60 communities are using the hybrid-electric buses, though some people question whether they are much more fuel efficient than standard diesel buses.

Birns also points out that those buses aren't quite as environmentally friendly as the plug-in hybrid because they still rely on fossil fuels to recharge their batteries.

Of course, the argument could be made that the plug-in hybrid buses rely on coal-burning power plants to produce the electricity they use. But Birns said he still thought the plug-ins would be a better option because the electric industry seems to be moving toward more environmentally friendly ways to produce electricity, such as wind energy.

"I'm really excited about what we're working on," Birns said. "I think it will be big in the transit world, but really I think it is going to be the way of the future for almost all transportation. It is going to be so much more efficient in fuel costs, and that is what everyone is looking for these days."


compmd 11 years, 9 months ago

Diesel-electric hybrid systems have been around for decades; look at submarines. If the city wants diesel-electric hybrid buses, thats great. However, the "plug-in" version is useless. The diesel engine onboard is going to produce plenty of power to charge the batteries during use. If you want to know what the benefits of the diesel-electric system really are, imagine this. An electric motor produces the most torque at stall, which is to say that if a speed controller gives power to the electric motor of a bus at a stop, the electric motor will provide its maximum torque to move the bus. As the bus starts rolling, torque drops off. It is at this time that the diesel engine can kick in and charge the batteries and provide power to drive the bus. On the flip side, combustion engines have a torque band based on engine speed where they have maximum torque, which is likely not going to start at engine idle. From a stop, a diesel engine is under high load (requires a lot of fuel) to get a bus rolling. That cloud of foul smelling black smoke that you get behind a bus when it rolls away from a stop is actually unburnt fuel, thats just the nature of the beast. By firing up the engine after electric motors have gotten the bus rolling, you eliminate that large inertia you have to overcome.

So, start on electric, get up to 20-25mph or so, cruise on diesel. I'd like to see a study on efficiency with that setup.

Nikki May 11 years, 9 months ago

That black smoke is WAY worse for the KU busses than the lawrence busses. I see that the T wants to replace their busses in a few years. I'm guessing KU hasn't changed busses in a few decades (although I've seen a couple of new ones I think.) KU campus stinks like that smoke most of the time. It's frustrating because mass transit is supposed to help the enviornment getting less people to drive, but that nastiness can't be helping a thing.

quik 11 years, 9 months ago

I used to work with Debbie, the lady in the picture. She was very nice and a lot of fun. If I ever ride the T, I hope she is my bus driver.

lunacydetector 11 years, 9 months ago

unreality check, you mean you want me to criticize the city over the fleecing of the american people AND the citizens of lawrence?

i think the majority realizes this already. i love how the last 2 M-T Buses i saw driving around empty were speeding 10 MPH over the speed limit. it's nice to see the city's efforts at being environmentally friendly, bwahahahahaha! our transit system is a joke! knock, knock, hello? lawrence is too spread out. we aren't 'urban' enough to justify the expense of these huge money losing and empty buses.

gr 11 years, 9 months ago

"A plug-in hybrid, though, theoretically doesn't have to use any petroleum-based fuel."

"Of course, the argument could be made that the plug-in hybrid buses rely on coal-burning power plants to produce the electricity they use. But Birns said he still thought the plug-ins would be a better option because the electric industry seems to be moving toward more environmentally friendly ways to produce electricity, such as wind energy."

So, "theoretically", means dream or imagination? Until dreams become a reality, efficiency losses in energy conversions continue.

compmd 11 years, 9 months ago

Punkrockmom, The KU buses are horrendously inefficient. They spew out way more crap than they should, even while driving at a constant speed. The new park & ride buses though are quite nice. But you know how the university works...

Downtoearth 11 years, 9 months ago

Another smart move my the City of Lawrence!!!!!!! About as brite as developing the Riverfront Malls!!!

davisnin 11 years, 9 months ago

So why does Galante want to upgrade to heavy duty buses? Does he get a cut? It's not because they are so packed.

hipper_than_hip 11 years, 9 months ago

Electric buses means more smoke from the powerplant north of town. I can't do a thing about our dependence foreign oil, but I sure hate to see more pollution over the skies of Lawrence. Which is worse: diesel smoke or coal smoke? I'll take the diesel thank you.

BunE 11 years, 9 months ago

Plug in capabilities on say a Prius have boosted MPG to the 75-100 mpg area, I would think similar effeciencies can be reached on bus eh?

Long term, I think more and more of us will ride mass transit. Get over yourselves, the myth of the American Rugged Individualist and his faithful car is starting to get boring.

The coal powered powerplant that Lawrence gets its electricity from is in need of a boost in green technologies, but this will come with the realization that a dirty powerplant is not worth much in the long term. The less effecient a power source is, the more waste is released, etc. That's no way to run a business.

Why do so many of you insist on cars? Do you all get a cut of each new car? Its not like the cars are packed, just the roads? Hey, the roads are getting beat up too! Are some of you investers in concrete and asphalt companies? hahahahahaha.

Godot 11 years, 9 months ago

The Commission should not be looking at how to replace these worn out vehicles, they should be dismantling the entire money-pit of a program.

If the city feels the need to provide transportation services to the few that ride the empT, the city should subsidize taxi rides for these individuals. That would provide much better service, give some entrepeurs a chance at building a business, and save MILLIONS of dollars.

Godot 11 years, 9 months ago

entrepeurs, shorthand for "entrepreneurs."

compmd 11 years, 9 months ago

BunE, Have you driven a Prius before? The way most people drive you never get near the EPA listed mileage for that car. Also, technologically speaking, the Prius is a joke due to the huge amount of proprietary equipment required in the car. This offsets whatever money you save in gas (you don't want to know what replacing the CVT costs) and wastes energy and natural resources by forcing you to buy new replacements parts directly from Toyota as opposed to used or rebuilt parts. At this time, you're not going to get 75-100mpg out of a bus without some clever technology. First, diesel engine with two or three turbos. Second, make sure the darn thing is tuned! A correctly tuned modern diesel engine is cleaner and more efficient than a comparably powered gas engine any day. Third, forget batteries, use ultracapacitors. Faster charge rates, more lifetime charge cycles, safer, and more reliable. A medium duty bus equipped with these items and regenerative braking would yield a substantial improvement in fuel economy. Not 75-100mpg, but a whole heck of a lot better than 10, and less pollution.

ksmattfish 11 years, 9 months ago

When we start bombing Iran and gas jumps to $10 a gallon the buses will be full.

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