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How-To Guide: Clean Energy Transformation in Public Transit

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Doug Brockwell, General Manager of Keolis' operations in Foothill, CA, shares his perspective on decarbonizing transit and Keolis’ recent e-book. Read what he had to say here:

Replacing your old gas-powered car with an #ElectricVehicle (EV) is a relatively straightforward process not unlike buying any new car. But when it comes to Public Transit Agencies moving away from hydrocarbon-powered vehicles with higher carbon emission rates to ones powered by clean energy, it’s not as simple as buying new EVs at scale.

As General Manager of Keolis’ operations in Pomona, California, I oversee 147 Foothill Transit vehicles that run on electricity, compressed natural gas, and hydrogen—so I’m especially aware of the complexities involved in navigating the clean #EnergyTransition and using multiple fuel sources at once.

For starters, buying, onboarding, and operationalizing clean energy fleets is a lengthy process that involves significant capital investment and planning. Transitioning to clean energy sources means more than just buying new buses: it’s rethinking operations, maintenance, employee training, digital information systems, and more. Before even choosing a fuel source, agencies first need to consider environmental impact, vehicle operating range, passenger satisfaction, and total cost of ownership. Given these factors, Keolis estimates that the concept-to-execution timeline can take about 33 months or just short of three years.

We’ll need to do everything we can to streamline this process if we want to decarbonize U.S. transportation, which emits more planet-warming gasses than any other sector. Progress away from fossil fuels has been stubbornly slow: the share of #renewables used in transport rose from 2.1% to just 3.4% in the decade from 2008 to 2018.

An electric bus with a passenger boarding.

Complex local, state, and federal regulatory frameworks are major considerations that require considerable planning and coordination. These rules tend to vary drastically by state. For example, here in California there’s just one state regulation pertaining to renewable fuel standards but in North Carolina, there are 18. It often works in the other direction, too: there are only four applicable air quality regulations in North Carolina, but 21 in California.

Despite these challenges, Keolis’ operation in Pomona offers an example of the power of investing into clean energy fleets. In addition to our existing vehicles, we’re also in the process of introducing 33 hydrogen-fueled New Flyer buses and commissioning a 25,000-gallon hydrogen fueling tank.

The challenges we're facing in Pomona with EV adoption are similar to those that other PTAs are facing throughout the U.S. and around the world. Keolis is helping agencies across the globe navigate these sorts of challenges, and I’m excited to share some of Keolis’ lessons learned and insights for PTAs navigating the energy transition in a new e-book derived from Keolis’ experience in Pomona and elsewhere.

In addition to detailing the intricacies of the decisions and challenges facing public transit agencies, the e-book puts a broader perspective on the energy transition and the urgency of acting now. A few of my key takeaways:

●      Cities and transit-oriented development are key to reducing emissions: Given their density, cities account for the majority of transportation emissions. They are the most natural places for transportation emissions to be cut – the sort of low-hanging fruit we’ll need to target first to reach emissions goals. We’ll need to integrate transit-oriented development, which utilizes urban planning to maximize walkability and bikeability while putting transit at the core of communities.

●      We can’t let perfect be the enemy of the good: It’s true that we don’t have the perfect fuel source yet, and each clean energy source involves benefits and drawbacks. In Pomona, we’re focusing our new acquisitions on hydrogen, but another municipality may be more inclined to go with electric. Regardless of the choice, we don’t have time to wait until the ideal fuel comes along.

●      Federal funding is here now, but won’t always be: Not only do we not have time to wait to reduce our emissions, we’re also at a unique, once-in-a-decade moment where PTAs have access to vast funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Investments we can make now might not be possible after fiscal year 2026.

A bus depot with a town in the background.

Helping public transit agencies navigate these challenges is Keolis’ bread and butter. We’re not just doing it in California, the U.S., or in Western Europe, but in 13 countries across the globe. Thanks to our 6,000 alternative fuel vehicles of all types – natural gas vehicles (NGVs), bioNGVs, hydrogen, biodiesel, and hybrid – Keolis has vast experience navigating the energy transition, and I’m proud to share the e-book on what we’ve figured out so far and the work we have left to do.

With agencies – our partners – facing economic instability, decreased ridership, and increased competition from other forms of transportations, it’s even more important that we share best practices that can address the factors that have led agencies to balk at the financing, timeframe, and uncertainty associated with switching to new fuel types.

If you’re an official at a #PublicTransit agency, the e-book will be key to understanding the factors to consider when moving to clean energy sources. And if you’re not, it’s still worth a read to understand what transportation experts are thinking and writing about. Check it out here or learn more about our recent work in Pomona here.