Rhode Island Announces Its First Electric Bus Fleet

A city known for its stately mansions, but with one out of every 6.9 residents in poverty, is going green. Another taking steps toward sustainability is the urban capital of the smallest state in the Union. The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) has announced plans for the state’s first electric bus fleets for Providence and Newport.

RIPTA has received the first of 14 New Flyer Xcelsior CHARGE NG™ 40-foot battery-electric buses, with the remainder of the Authority’s order to be delivered in the upcoming months. The deployment creates RIPTA’s first fully electric route, which will lower emissions on this key corridor and help to reduce air pollution in many low-income and diverse communities.

The buses will be bright green, symbolic of their clean and sustainable energy. The effort aims to further the state’s ambitious decarbonization goals, including reaching zero net emissions by 2050 as set in the 2021 Rhode Island Act on Climate legislation.

Transportation is the biggest culprit of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, equal to 40% of state emissions. Making the switch from diesel to electric buses saves up to 135 metric tons of emissions per bus annually, according to the state. Plans for statewide electrification and service growth for Providence are underway at RIPTA, with transition of Newport based service to follow.

US Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, along with US Representatives Jim Langevin and David Cicilline, announced the $22.37 million Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) grant on August 8. The project will fund charging infrastructure, facility upgrades, and the purchase of approximately 25 battery-charged buses.

What is an electric bus? RIPTA says an all-electric bus runs on battery power instead of diesel fuel. RIPTA is piloting extended range vehicles, meaning the batteries are very big and can be charged slowly at night.

What is the battery power of the new electric buses? They will be equipped with 320 kWh batteries.

How much emissions will be saved? According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a 40-foot electric bus can save up to 135 metric tons of GHG annually, which is what a traditional 40-foot clean diesel bus would emit per year.

What did one bus cost? Each New Flyer Xcelsior CHARGE NG™ 40-foot heavy-duty transit bus costs $1,072,551.13. The company says these buses are lighter, simpler, have longer range with better energy recovery, and are smart city capable.

How were the purchases funded? Fleet funding was provided by the Federal Transit Administration, Volkswagen settlement funds, and RIPTA capital funds.

First Stop for the Electric Bus Fleet: Providence, Rhode Island

When will the Providence project be ready to go? The roughly $6.7 million project will be built by BOND Civil & Utility Construction, Inc. and is expected to be completed by Spring, 2023.

How will the Providence fleet get charged? The fleet will be electrified by high-powered charging infrastructure – the State’s first Electric Bus In-Line Charging Station – located on Broad Street at the Providence/Cranston city line. The station has 4 overhead pantograph chargers. This design means that frequent recharging can occur without human interaction.

What does it look like for these electric buses to charge? To charge, the bus pulls into the charging station and the overhead pantograph lowers from the station to the bus bars installed on the roof of the bus. After charging for an estimated 5 to 9 minutes, the vehicle can return to service.

What are they replacing? This fleet of New Flyer Xcelsior electric buses will replace the current fleet of diesel buses that operate on the R-Line, RIPTA’s most frequent and highest-ridership route, connecting Providence and Pawtucket.

Is this RIPTA’s first experience with electric buses? No. In 2019, RIPTA launched a pilot program with 3 leased all-electric buses. Since the waitlist to purchase new all-electric, public transit buses was about 2 years, RIPTA chose to get started with leased vehicles. This first phase of the pilot provided RIPTA with an opportunity to learn about the new technology, train staff, and test the performance of the electric buses on a variety of RIPTA routes.

Why did the pilot program seem to make sense? The US has been powering buses with diesel for 80 years. RIPTA acknowledges that electricity is very different from diesel, which is available for use whenever needed. Going fully electric means answering some big questions — Can you replace diesel buses with electric buses on a 1:1 ratio? Will you need more electric buses to cover the same area currently covered by diesel bus? Will electric buses cost less or more than current vehicles to operate?

Next Stop: Aquidneck Island

The RIPTA will also be electrifying bus service on Aquidneck Island, with hub located in Newport.

When will the Newport project be completed? The shift away from diesel-powered buses for the island is expected to be complete by 2026.

Where will charging take place?  The plan is to install charging infrastructure at the Newport garage, at the Newport Transportation Center, and on the site of a future transit center at the University of Rhode Island (URI) in Kingston. URI is 17 miles from Newport.

Why is the RAISE funding appropriate for Aquidneck Island? RAISE grants support transportation planning and capital projects that have a significant local or regional impact, particularly in underserved communities. This new federal grant is about increasing opportunity, connecting communities, and preparing for the future. It will help RIPTA advance a major part of the Rhode Island Transit Master Plan.

Final Thoughts about Rhode Island’s Electric Bus Fleets

Reducing economy-wide GHG emissions across Rhode Island’s electric, heating, and transportation sectors is integral to climate change mitigation and achieving long-term GHG reduction targets consistent with the Resilient Rhode Island Act.

As of June 30, 2022, the state has counted approximately 1,149 MW of clean energy generation capacity. Of that total, 527 MW is solar, 430 MW is offshore wind, 148 MW is onshore wind, 35 MW is landfill gas/anaerobic digestion, and 9 MW is small hydroelectric power.

In June, Governor Dan McKee signed legislation requiring Rhode Island to be 100% renewable by 2033. Offshore wind farm developments off the Northeast coast will assist in reaching the goal. Now buses powered by electricity generated at offshore wind farms are completing another piece of the RI resiliency puzzle.

RIPTA has said the single greatest impact it could have on emission reduction was encouraging the public to use its services rather than do their own driving. Providence and Newport join many cities around the US that have chosen to electrify its mass transit.


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