Electric Bus Adoption Is Taking Off In China

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Here at CleanTechnica, we frequently cover electric buses, as they often displace diesel and hybrid diesel buses that are typically major generators of particulate matter (PM) emissions in cities. Lots of pollution where we have the most people is not ideal, so this conversion process is extremely important. The electrification of mass transit is an even larger opportunity in developing nations, as emissions are not as tightly regulated. A recent report on the Chinese Electric Bus Industry had some great insights into China, its mass transit system, and electric bus adoption that have me excited.

Given the explosive population grown in China, it has rapidly adopted mass transit and now has more than 500,000 city buses in use with an impressive 80,000 of these being electric as of 2014. On a sales per year basis, 2014 saw 27,000 electric buses sold in China, with the first half of 2015 almost matching that at ~20,000 being sold.

BYD Los Angeles Metro Electric Bus | Image Credit: Kyle Field

Petrol-powered city buses are currently subsidized by the government as a means of encouraging mass transit. However, this is gradually being reduced as a means of encouraging local governments to go electric. The rapid population growth and urbanization in China presents a double edged sword — from a total emissions standpoint, it’s better for the rising middle class to use mass transit than it is for everyone to purchase and use their own vehicle… so we want people to use buses… but on the flip side, that’s just one more huge diesel vehicle on the road that we already can’t wait to get off the road. Obviously, the healthiest balance is for all new buses to be electric while at the same time whittling away at the ever-older diesel bus population by replacing end-of-life buses with electrics.

For better or worse, we do not live in the ideal world, but rather in the real world, where it is taking time to shift away from petrol towards electric transport. As the current petrol-powered bus subsidies are expiring, they too are being replaced by electric bus subsidies, which is a win for China on so many levels:

  • Decreased cancer-causing diesel emissions in population centers.
  • Decreased cost of public transit, making the most efficient option for transportation the cleanest.
  • Increased spending on electric public transit will drive vehicle-specific battery costs down as volumes increase.
  • Public funds in the form of subsidies go towards clean technologies that don’t harm the planet or the health of living creatures.
City of Gardena BYD Electric Bus | Image Credit: Kyle Field

China is also focusing on electrifying other bus formats. Though, they are at a much lower volume for the time being. China is really targeting the low-hanging fruit both in terms of areas that have high-density population and areas with lots of pollution, which makes electrified mass transit buses an easy win on both fronts. As battery prices drop (which they are projected to do), the report notes that the smaller, niche bus markets will become more attractive and market penetration of electric buses should follow.

Speaking of battery technology, electric buses in China are predominantly utilizing lithium-ferro-phosphate (LFP) batteries — the same chemistry used by BYD, which, being a Chinese company, we would expect to be a large player in this market… and it is. Interestingly, the report notes that combination LFP/supercapacitor battery technology adoption is taking off in 2015 production numbers.

These combo batteries leverage a supercapacitor to quickly discharge to cover large load spikes while allowing the battery to feed more predictable, constant base loads. This works wonders for the battery system in electric vehicles, as it is these load spikes that put the majority of the wear on batteries in terms of the length of time a given charge lasts and relative to the life expectancy of the battery. The net effect of this combination battery is that the battery can be smaller and last longer. This presentation offers a great dive into the “rate capacity effect” and touches on a range of battery challenges that are becoming increasingly relevant as global demand for EV batteries and grid-scale batteries ramps up.

Looking at the players in the bus market, I’m faced with many companies that I am not familiar with — though I do see BYD happily in the middle of the top 5:

  1. Yutong Bus,
  2. Xiamen King Long Motor Group — including its three wholly-owned subsidiaries: Higer Bus, Xiamen King Long United Automotive Industry, and Xiamen Golden Dragon Bus
  3. BYD
  4. Nanjing Golden Dragon Bus
  5. Zhongtong Bus

These 5 together produce 62.5% of the country’s electric buses for a total of 17,011 vehicles. It is extremely impressive to me to see such fast takeup of electrics in China, and it truly feels like the US is lagging behind in a serious way when it comes to electrifying mass transit.

Switching gears to their motors (see what I did there?), electric buses in China are primarily utilizing asynchronous motors rated between 80 kW and 120 kW, primarily due to their ability to provide high-power traction.

In summary, electric buses are taking off in China where the government-supported mass transit boom is fueling the growth of China’s electric bus and LFP manufacturing industries. It will be interesting to see how these trends continue as the markets in China and overseas mature. What has me the most excited about this update is the fact that China has already made significant progress in electrifying its transportation infrastructure, which will prove to be a key foundational piece of infrastructure as it shifts towards renewables and personal electric transportation.

For a taste of what electric mass transit feels like and sounds like, here’s a quick video I shot on a test ride on one of BYD’s almost-ready electric buses:

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Kyle Field

I'm a tech geek passionately in search of actionable ways to reduce the negative impact my life has on the planet, save money and reduce stress. Live intentionally, make conscious decisions, love more, act responsibly, play. The more you know, the less you need. As an activist investor, Kyle owns long term holdings in Tesla, Lightning eMotors, Arcimoto, and SolarEdge.

Kyle Field has 1649 posts and counting. See all posts by Kyle Field