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CDTA takes first steps toward a fossil-fuel free future

ALBANY _ They’re sleek, they’re quiet, and they don’t smell. CDTA’s newest addition to its bus fleet hit area roads Friday following a ceremony introducing public officials and the media to upstate’s first all-electric transit buses.

The vehicles, manufactured by New Flyer of America, look very much like traditional diesel buses that the company also produces. But on its roof are four battery packs, each containing seven batteries. Two more packs fill the space where the diesel engine usually sits. Together, the packs are designed to get the bus through its daily runs.

The current batteries hold more than twice the electric charge of the earliest models, said Carmine Fiore, regional sales manager for New Flyer. While buses are now charged at CDTA’s Albany garage off Watervliet Avenue, chargers might eventually be installed at one end of routes using the electric buses. A battery can be charged in six to eight minutes to give the bus more than enough power to complete one round trip.

CDTA will work with National Grid in what’s being called a virtual laboratory to collect operating data, said Laurie J. Poltynski, director, community and customer management, for National Grid.

While CDTA replaces one-twelfth of its bus fleet each year — each bus has an expected life of 12 years or 500,000 miles — it’s not clear how many of next year’s order might be electric. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in his State of the State speech this week, set a goal for the state’s five largest transit systems, including the CDTA.

“Let’s use our collective government purchasing power, and make sure that 25% of public transit bus fleets are electrified by 2025 and 100 percent by 2035,” Cuomo said during his speech.

It wasn’t clear Friday whether CDTA will draw on renewable energy sources such as wind, hydro or solar power to charge the buses, or might purchase carbon offsets to compensate for whatever carbon dioxide is emitted in producing the electricity using natural gas.

Carm Basile, CDTA’s CEO, has envisioned the transit authority’s second Bus Rapid Transit route, the so-called Blue Line collecting Albany to the riverfront communities of Watervliet, Troy, Cohoes and Waterford, to use electric vehicles. The route is mostly level, a feature that would give the bus batteries more range than would routes with steep hills, which would consume more energy.

Lance Zarcone, CDTA’s vice president of operations, envisions the Blue Line route as a likely contender for an end-of-route charging station.

CDTA and National Grid also will study the electric buses’ impact on the electric grid. Cold weather affects a battery’s performance, while the need to heat the bus in also draws additional energy, something that CDTA also will study.

The electric buses CDTA purchased typically cost over $900,000 each, compared to $500,000 for a similar diesel bus. But the gap closes considerably when operating costs are included. With far fewer moving parts, maintenance costs are lower. And Fiore said a diesel bus will consume as much as $400,000 in fuel over the course of its life.

And electric bus prices are likely to continue falling as battery technology improves and manufacturing efficiencies are realized.

State Assembly member Patricia Fahy, citing the impacts of climate change, including wildfires and hurricanes, said the emissions-free buses could be part of the solution. And operating them in the Capital Region can provide a showcase for policymakers in the state capital.

Meanwhile, CDTA expects to push ahead with construction of the BRT Blue Line, Basile said, after announcing that funds from a $26 million federal grant will be available next week.

CDTA introduced its first bus rapid transit line in 2011. The Red Line, as it’s called, travels along Route 5, connecting downtown Albany to Schenectady. The Blue Line is expected to begin operating late this year.

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