Hybrid buses: green steps in dark shadows

The pilot project on electric, hybrid buses for public transport   looks more like a friendly nudge to industry to find 'real business' for a very expensive technology concept. Green steps without green target is a bad idea

Beijing has introduced hybrid buses but it has also set fuel economy standards for other vehicles and is proposing it for heavy duty vehicles. Beijing has also implemented clean 10 ppm sulphur diesel. Simultaneously, the city is scaling up public transport system while capping the number of cars that can be sold in the city (photocredit LHOON)Beijing has introduced hybrid buses but it has also set fuel economy standards for other vehicles and is proposing it for heavy duty vehicles. Beijing has also implemented clean 10 ppm sulphur diesel. Simultaneously, the city is scaling up public transport system while capping the number of cars that can be sold in the city (Photo: LHOON)

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has approved a pilot project on electric and hybrid vehicles for public transport to save fossil fuels in India. Delhi will kick-start the pilot to lead the country to electric mobility; subsidies will spur hybrid bus production. Can anyone worrying about energy security and pollution ever object to such a win-win combo of new-gen green technology tied with public transport strategy? That’s blasphemy! Or, think again, may be not.

This abrupt green idea without a policy vision on energy savings from transport has made all suspicious. This is an isolated act of friendly nudge to the industry to find `real business` for a very expensive technology concept. What is disturbing is the timing and tying of subsidy with funding of hybrid buses without any regulatory mandate to improve fuel savings in the rest of the bus fleet or other vehicle segments. Knowing that the potential of the hybrid or electric drive will take years to be fully realized, not integrating this with other surer innovations in the mainstream fleet will damage the cause of getting quicker and significant emissions and fuel savings.

We have nothing against hybrids or electric vehicles. Anyone tracking global trends knows that this paradigm shift in technology is a part of the longer term answer to climate debacle and energy crisis. Electric drive can get rid of local toxic emissions, and when powered by renewable energy sources, it can virtually remove all emissions, and cut use of fossil fuels. This is free from worries over efficiency of emission control system or failures that plague conventional vehicles. This grand old good idea is still evolving to further cut costs, improve life and efficiency of batteries and driving range, to come of its own. It needs subsidy to find a niche in the mainstream.

Missing links
Let us, however, solve the Indian hybrid bus sudoku. In stop-and-go run of buses in cities, hybrids can ideally improve fuel efficiency by about 25 per cent, they say. Hybrids use conventional fuel and a battery driven motor which captures energy otherwise lost during braking and decelerating. Certainly an attractive deal for our bus corporations where fuel costs overwhelm bus operation costs. But there are many missing links in the Indian story and therefore, these buses costing more than double the low floor urban buses have stirred more doubts than enthusiasm.
While expanding the bus fleet, bus corporations are already compromising on height of bus to cut cost, which is unfair to the majority users; or preferring to increase the height of bus station platforms to enable level boarding to cheaper high floor buses for BRT, or cutting down on AC requirements, and delaying decisions to buy buses in public transport deficit cities. Delhi with a difficult target of increasing its bus numbers 3.5 times the current fleet by 2020 is getting the jitters about the high investments. So there are questions about the opportunity cost of subsidy for a few expensive hybrid buses that might limit benefits, especially, when the baseline is so weak.

More so as the same government has not shown any interest in setting fuel economy targets for buses despite desperate cry from bus corporations over worsening fuel economy of the newer, bigger, and more powerful bus fleet. This is upsetting their fuel savings and costs. The government has also failed to get the bus manufacturers to give guarantee for fuel economy performance in bus purchase agreement in the ongoing reforms condition for the buses promised under the current Union Budget.

So far vehicle industry has not agreed to any regulatory target for fuel conservation. In fact, the car companies have reopened the fuel economy standards even after the prime minister’s nod. So this largess to high value hybrid buses to companies, ostensibly to save fuel, does not cut much ice.

Need green terms for green action

This makes us conscious once again that green steps without green target for intended benefits, is a bad idea.

If hybrid buses enjoy high premium for efficiency and attract public investments, then regulations must ensure verifiable performance targets for the bus and the fleet. Global evidences show (as from the data of Clinton Foundation) that there can be wide variability in fuel saving performance in hybrid bus fleet across cities by drive cycle and terrain—30 per cent in New York City transit, 8-10 per cent in the Washington DC metro transit fleet, or 10 per cent in Salt Lake city in the US.

We know little about the status and adequacy of the testing, certification and validation of emissions from the hybrids in India. Automotive Research Association is on the job. Given the fact that a hybrid is energy storage and release system, and most of its gains in fuel efficiency are realised in heavy traffic, it is not enough to test only on an engine test bed, but it must be tested on the road using on-board measurement equipment or a chassis dynamometer. In Sweden and Finland tests on hybrid buses have been planned on both. There are initiatives in Europe to develop methods for simulation of emissions and fuel consumption for city buses.

The other uncomfortable question is the wisdom of bringing expensive diesel hybrid buses without clean diesel technology and fuels. Globally, bus transit agencies have brought hybrids after introducing near zero sulphur diesel fuel and advanced particulate traps. The study from University of Connecticut clearly shows emissions of particulate matter from conventional and hybrid diesel buses are nearly same for both. This can be cut significantly only if advanced particulate traps are fitted and use clean diesel.

This exposes the policy hypocrisy. The parallel effort to decide the Auto Fuel Policy roadmap is seeking only low cost “low hanging fruits” like the inspection and maintenance programme to avoid the cost of clean diesel fuel and technology. The Union government has not tied up the bus programme, including the hybrids, with dedicated supply of clean diesel fuel and mandatory application of advanced particulate traps to cut serious health risks.

Industry led “green decisions” in absence of all else don’t work. This creates imbalance in investment strategy without tangible benefits. Advance technology transition must combine a range of other efficiency and mobility strategies for real benefits.

Cost and targets of transition

I hold no grudge against high cost of bus improvement or reforms. Bus surely deserves better. Bus technology transition is needed and is inevitable as is evident from the change from old fashioned standard buses to better designed semi and low floor buses, alternative fuelled buses, and now to electric and hybrid buses.  But technology transformation needs deployment, ridership, infrastructure and financing strategy. We have learnt this the hard way from the CNG transition in Delhi. The cost of transformation for this cleaner public transport was not managed well. Today, interest payments on loans for the bus fleet renewal are half of the total cost of Delhi Transport Corporation.

If Delhi is slated to make the next transition to low floor buses including CNG hybrids along with improved operations then get the fiscal strategy right for all buses. If Metro rail could be exempted from a plethora of taxes, so can all buses be. Raise funds from other sources to make the urban transport fund and to make the bus viable. Even after the makeover of bus fleet we need reliable and efficient services on our congested roads! Will our rich and powerful hop onto the expensive hybrids running at less than 10 km/hour during peak hours?

So the sudoku cannot be solved only with incentives for bus manufacturers to produce a few super efficient buses while the rest of their portfolio remains full of fuel guzzlers. Incentivise and set targets for fuel savings for all models and modes, set performance target for advanced technologies and bus service, create space for buses on roads, so that the real benefits can flow not just to the industry but also to operators, users and—the country.

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