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Snohomish transit agency aims for zero emission fleet

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(The Center Square) – As Washington state officials seek to electrify the private transportation sector, Community Transit in Snohomish County aims to have a fully zero-emission fixed-route transit bus fleet by 2044.

The regional transit agency recently purchased two “clean energy” buses, one powered by electricity and the other powered by hydrogen, for a total price of $2.4 million. The purchase makes Community Transit the only agency in the Pacific Northwest to operate a hydrogen bus.

However, $2.4 million is a drop in the bucket compared to the total $1.5 billion Community Transit estimates it will cost to completely roll out the zero emission vehicle transition plan by the end of 2050. The cost just to transition the existing fleet to zero emission vehicles by 2038 is approximately $560 million.

While Community Transit seeks to convert 30% of the fleet to clean energy fuel by 2029, the transit agency doesn’t just intend to replace fossil-fuel buses in their fleet, but expand it overall. Currently, Community Transit operates more than 257 buses; by 2050, they aim to expand it to 300 buses, 210 electric vehicles and 90 hydrogen fueled.

The price tag is one of the major challenges for the plan, as Community Transit’s plans state they “must identify resources that can cover this funding gap.”

According to a transit agency spokesperson, Community Transit intends to seek federal and state funding to cover the remaining costs of the program. Recently, U.S. Rep Rick Larsen, D-Wash., submitted a funding request to the House Appropriations Committee that included $3 million for Community Transit to buy three EV buses, replacing three diesel-powered ones that are nearing their end of use.

Another obstacle to overcome is that there are no reliable hydrogen fuel sources available within the state, and Community Transit’s plan acknowledges that prices for deliveries to support their existing hydrogen bus “are steep.” To give a comparison, the plan estimates diesel prices at around $3.65 a gallon, while hydrogen prices are $20-$30 per kilogram. Hydrogen buses consume between 6.1-15.48 kilograms of hydrogen every 62 miles, while a diesel bus consumes approximately 6.3 gallons in the same distance.

Additionally, Community Transit will also have to install “a significant number” of EV charging infrastructure. While EV charging port copper wire theft has been an ongoing problem in parts of the state, a transit spokesperson said they’re protecting their infrastructure through a variety of means, including transit security and police, with plans to install a 24/7 security operation center that includes CCTV.

To power the EV stations, Community Transit will rely solely on Snohomish PUD, the state’s largest public utility district. By 2050, Community Transit estimates it will need 23,119,100 kilowatt hours annually for its EV buses. According to a Snohomish PUD spokesperson, this makes up less than .3% of the PUD’s current annual energy sales. The PUD generates 947 aMW over a year, with average retail demand around 794 aMW and the remaining electricity sold.

To accommodate the EV charging infrastructure, the PUD will have to complete “last mile” of electrical distribution. Both entities have emphasized the need for close collaboration on those efforts.

Yet, the PUD spokesperson wrote in an email to The Center Square that “loads like this combined with other growing demand across our system is why we need to plan in earnest for significant growth.” Their most recent integrated resource plan, updated every two years, estimates the average load growth between 2024-2025 will be 2.07%, rather than the .96% estimated in 2021. The IRP attributes this to “changes in state and local policy have increased the electrification portion of the load forecast, resulting in a higher contribution from electric vehicles and a greater expectation of buildings with new or converted electrification of space and water heating.”

As far as environmental impacts, Community Transit is uncertain now as to what extent the zero emission vehicles will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A zero emissions team is currently developing a model that will be used later to track the agency’s emission reduction.

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