I recently authored a report for EECA titled “Powering public transport in New Zealand.” In this report we considered a range of emerging public transport technologies and whether they might be suited to small to medium sized cities in New Zealand.
The first question to answer is why do we need this study? Surely there’s loads of comprehensive international studies out there that we can use? Well, yes and no. International studies are useful and we did use them in our report. The second question is why is renewability relevant? Well, it’s relevant because 1) NZ has a ongoing incentive to reduce carbon emissions and 2) a renewable and efficient PT system provides us with a hedge against higher energy prices.
The local NZ context is also relevant for several reasons. Most importantly the local context defines the broad characteristics of our urban form (low density), as well as the scale and structure of our PT systems (small). The local context also informs the price and availability of fuels (limited). And then the reconstruction of Christchurch presents a unique opportunity for us to embed PT into the urban fabric of a city from the outset. Lastly, our cost structures – especially labour – are different from elsewhere, so you can’t just say “country y is building technology x” so we should do that too.
So in our study we took the approach of using international research to identify some potential “winners”, which were then evaluated in more detail for their suitability in NZ. In this post I won’t go into too much detail; I’d encourage you to simply download the report and read it for yourselves (only 40 pages with lots of pictures and graphs. But for those of you (like Patrick) who have short attention spans I thought I’d summarise our key findings:
- Alternative fuel pathways - we consider that there are three potentially viable pathways for New Zealand cities:
- Diesel substitution pathway, which would make use of increasingly efficient diesel vehicles (such as hybrids) and non-mineral diesel fuels, namely biodiesel and synthetic diesel. This pathway is attractive because it offers immediate, albeit incremental, improvements in PT renewability. Public transport is an ideal testing ground for such fuels, because it provides a concentrated point of demand/distribution. On the downside, to be feasible the price differential between mineal and non-mineal diesel would need to decline over time.
- Biogas pathway – which may be suitable where large quantities of biogas can be generated from landfills. Best suited to cities where reticulated CNG is available as a back-up, and that support large PT systems. Scale is important because the switch from diesel to CNG buses will incur fixed capital costs, e.g. in maintenance facilities, which would ideally be spread over as many vehicles as possible.
- All-electric pathway – While the low energy density of batteries does create some range and speed limitations for electric buses, our literature review noted just how quickly these issues were being circumvented with innovative in-service recharging facilities, such as over-head and inductive charging points. These re-charging facilities meant that battery electric buses can now get through the day without needing to be taken out of service for re-charging. One of the interesting advantages of battery electric buses is that they tend to charge overnight when electricity prices are low, whereas trolley buses and light rail draw down during the day when prices are high.
- Alternative vehicle pathways – in a future of sustained high oil prices, such as those forecast recently by the IMF, alternative vehicles, such as hybrid and battery electric buses, because cost-effective alternatives to diesel buses. Fixed route electric vehicles, such as trolley buses and light rail, struggled to be cost-effective due to their high capital costs. Going forward, we would expect newer technologies, such as hybrids and electric buses, to develop more rapidly and only extend their comparative advantage over fixed route options.
If you wanted my personal opinion on what pathway(s) were most likely, I suspect the best way forward is to focus on purchasing more efficient diesel buses, before subsequently embracing all-electric battery buses when they become viable. Of course the circumstances of individual regions and operators will vary considerably, which is why we hesitate to make an universal, all-encompassing conclusion about what is best fuel/technology mix.
Based on our results we made the following recommendations:
- Central government should closely monitor alternative public transport technologies, because these technologies are evolving rapidly.
- Undertake a systematic analysis of the barriers to uptake of emerging technologies, such as weight and mass restrictions.
- Engage with bus operators to gain feedback on which technologies they see as having the most potential.
- Investigate whether trials can be used to gain on the ground experience of new technologies.
- Perhaps most importantly: Central government should establish a public transport vehicle procurement forum to help realise economies of scale in bus procurement.
Recommendation #5 is potentially the most interesting. What we’re encouraging central government to do here is to take a leadership role in the procurement of public transport vehicles. This has two positive consequences. First, it creates opportunities to gain economies of scale in vehicle ordering, which in turn drives the price down. Second, economies of scale are especially important when you’re trying to buy new technologies. As such, by facilitating a public transport procurement forum central government can help us to gain access to cheaper, better buses.
As the report notes, participating in the vehicle procurement forum would be completely optional and moreover self-funding through charging a small commission on successful orders. And ultimately by helping to lower the costs of vehicle procurement (which are a not insubstantial cost of the PT system) we should see reduced demand for PT subsidies and higher quality, more renewable vehicles.
It’s also a useful example of how our Government could take a leave out of the Scandinavian economics text book, by working more closely with the private sector to coordinate strategically interdependent “win-win” outcomes.
*** I’d like to acknowledge the contribution of Jörn and Liz at EECA for supporting this study, as well as Ian Wallis for helping to make it happen ***