Jeff Gray has bad news from River City (actually Toronto, but I like being overly dramatic). But, the all too familiar news is bad for Johnson City because the BAE Systems plant involved in production / testing of components for the Orion buses is right around the corner.
All too familiar because the batteries died earlier than expected in my electric car. On the other hand, the Toronto Transit Commission paid a bit more for their wheels.
The box-like batteries on top of the premium-priced hybrid electric-diesel buses are lasting only half as long as promised by the manufacturer. Gary Webster, the TTC’s chief general manager, told the Globe and Mail reporter that the lead-acid batteries were supposed to last five years. In about a third of the current fleet of 275 hybrids – which started arriving in 2006 – some cells have already worn out, which, as I can sadly attest, means replacing the entire pack.
The battery failures come on top of TTC testing that has shown the buses are producing just half the expected fuel savings, using just 10 per cent instead of 20 to 30 per cent less diesel than a conventional bus, although TTC officials expect this number to improve.
Still, Mr. Webster defends the decision to buy the Orion VII hybrids – which cost $734,000, compared with $500,000 for a conventional bus. He says the TTC and the manufacturer, Daimler Buses North America, are trying to sort out the battery problem, which is covered by the warranty and not costing the TTC money.
“We think the hybrid bus is a good bus. That’s the bottom line for us. It’s got some issues, absolutely,” Mr. Webster said. “… We think we’re going to address these issues.”
Orion VII buses, with the BAE HybriDrive, are built in Mississauga, Ontario, which is part of the Greater Toronto Metropolitan Area. Along with New York and San Francisco, Toronto is a major customer for Orion buses.
By year’s end, the TTC will have 564 hybrid buses – making up about a third of its bus fleet – with much of the cost of buying them covered by the federal and provincial governments in funding that mandated buses using alternative fuels. Within five years, close to half of the TTC’s fleet is scheduled to have hybrid engines.
But Adam Giambrone, the city councillor who chairs the TTC, said the battery problems mean the jury is still out on whether the buses were a good investment: “We’re still formulating our opinion on the hybrids.”
He said the hybrid engine could be a “transitional technology” and that down the road, electric buses could come onto the market, or the TTC could, on busier routes, even return to using trolley buses – powered by overhead wires like streetcars – which it abandoned in the 1990s.
Mr. Webster said yesterday that New York has had some similar problems with its fleet of Orion VII hybrids.
But Jake Keyes, a spokesman for Daimler, which runs the former Orion Bus Industries plant in Mississauga where the buses are partly manufactured, said the battery problem was specific to Toronto’s buses and has not occurred with its other hybrid buses running in New York and San Francisco.
The company’s newer models include a different, lithium-ion battery that Mr. Keyes said lasts longer, but Mr. Webster said the TTC is not convinced the new battery will fix its problem.
“… We’ve said to them, ‘Happy to consider it, but you’ve got to prove to us these things actually function,’ ” he said.
The TTC blames its hybrid buses’ fuel-economy problems on the fact that they are being used more on suburban high-speed routes, where hybrid engines are less efficient.
Once more of the buses are running on stop-and-go congested routes downtown, Mr. Webster says, their fuel economy numbers should go up as the bus can rely more on the electric power it creates with its regenerative braking system.
Unfortunately, while the regenerative braking system is the basis for fuel savings, the continual charge and discharge cycles also could effect the life of the batteries. Which is a reason for recent conjecture regarding a combination of VRLAs (Valve Regulated Lead Acid batteries) with lithium nano-phosphate buffering.
Combined energy storage systems may have the potential to provide energy density plus ‘bursts’ of electric energy that can help acceleration. Since reduced fuel consumption depends upon kinetic energy reclamation, some part of the energy storage must be well suited to frequent, rapid cycling.
Not only might the addition of advanced lithium batteries — capable of rapid charging — improve performance, but reliability also could be enhanced with improved, power electronics that separate acceleration (power) and range (energy) demands made upon the energy storage on board the bus.