Greg Balkin admits that when the first fully electric buses were rolled out onto Sydney routes, he didn’t really know what to expect. They had been operating on airport aprons and in short shuttle services, but how would they perform on longer routes meandering through the city and suburbs?
“We didn’t know how they were going to work in busy Sydney, city streets,” Balkin, the chief operating officer of Transit Systems, tells The Driven, in the latest episode of The Driven podcast.
“We didn’t know how far they would go before they stopped. If they did stop. What would we do? How embarrassing would iut be if that happened on Sydney Harbour Bridge and the whole city comes to gridlock.
“So we were very cautious. We selected routes that were close to Leichardt (the home depot). That way if we needed to retrieve them, we could. ”
Transit Systems are at the front line of the ambition by NSW to electrify the entire Sydney bus fleet of 8,000 to electric, or fuel cell and is now operating around 50 buses from Leichhard, with another 100 on their way.
It turns out the fears of failure were misplaced. It became clear after about four weeks, Balkin says, that the buses were exceeding all expectations, both in the use of their 328kWh battery and in recharging times.
The buses are now doing longer routes, from Leichhardt to Bondi, for instance, and returning after doing more than 200kms with 40-50 per cent, a lot more than they had expected.
That in turn means much shorter recharging times, so instead of planning for overnight charging times of five to six hours, they can actually recharge the buses in two to three hours, which means it can be done in the middle of the day.
“It’s the nature of the operation really, because there’s so much stop- start, which is generally a bit of an aggravation to everyone but with electric buses it actually regenerates the battery,” Balkin says.
“We see them now as very much as a normal bus. We all three hundred drivers and they have all been trained. The passengers love them, the drivers love them, our engineers have smiles on their faces, because they’re working with state of the art technology and going home with clean hands.”
Balkin admits there has been a huge learning process, particularly in the charging infrastructure in a depot designed for diesel storage and refuelling. “We didn’t know whether they would charge like of golf carts, or whether it’s like plugging in a toaster,” Balkins admits. “We did make mistakes.”
The Leichhardt depot is now hosting 55 electric buses, with charging infrastructure supported by a 388kW solar system, a big battery and an upgraded sub station.
It has 42 charging stations, but Balkin reckons because the charging time is shorter than they had expected, they won’t need many more even when they triple the number of electric buses at the depot, as is planned.
Balkin says the total cost of operating electric buses is not yet clear, because no one has operated them for 20 years, but it’s clear that the cost of maintenance is much lower, and the servicing needs much less.
“But the big, big benefit of electric buses, or hydrogen fuel cells as well, is the amenity that it provides to the community, the quietness of operation, not having the same particulate matter or co2 and all those other nasty things that come out of a diesel engine.
“And I think it’s it’s the future, we’ve just got to make sure we plan the grids and depots to accommodate future growth because it is a significant cost if you have to retrofit a depot.”
And there are other less tangible benefits.
“In a bus operation, you don’t always get many compliments, which is a shame. But we are getting compliments from customers saying this is a great initiative, and what the government’s doing is fantastic.
“I used to get woken up every morning at 5.30 by a diesel bus outside my house in Burwood Road. Now I don’t even know if it’s there. We even get comments from people saying the buses are too quiet. Maybe we should bells on them.”