Recent news carried by Polaris Smart Grid Online (Google translation into English) reports that China’s aggressive investment in full-electric buses is not proving to be the pollution panacea that was hoped for, and that the Chinese government is preparing to reduce its focus on this technology. Lightning Hybrids has always asserted that battery powered medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, whether full-electric or hybrid-electric, are likely to be problematic, and this news confirms this opinion.Air Contamination Ningbo 2013-12-07 attrib

China’s problems with pollution have been increasingly visible in the news, to the point where China’s government has declared that environmental policies are now a national priority. The investment in full-electric buses is a part of this strategy, but one that’s turning sour.

The full extent of China’s problems with pollution was brought to the world’s attention recently by Chai Jing’s documentary, “Under The Dome”, which was subsequently suppressed by the Chinese government after going viral in China. An investigative journalist, Chai revealed the scale of China’s pollution and the corruption that renders environmental enforcement agencies powerless. One of the key areas highlighted by Chai is the use of low-quality coal for electrical power generation in power stations with no pollution mitigation systems. Even though China has recently imposed restrictions on the burning of “dirty coal”, electrical power stations are, amazingly, exempt. These power stations are the primary contributor to China’s widespread smog. In China, electricity is anything but clean.

On the face of it, full-electric buses appear to be a good bet for the environment. After all, they are zero emissions vehicles, at least on the road. However, the benefits end there and are overwhelmed by the negative aspects.

Any reasoned assessment of energy and emissions must take into account the full chain of production from the ground to the wheels, or in other words, tracking the impact of mining and transporting the coal, burning it in the power stations, energy conversion to electricity and the cost of building and maintaining the infrastructure needed to operate the vehicles. Full-electric vehicles in China do not come out well when assessed in this way. Just because the vehicle itself is not emitting pollutants does not mean that it’s clean in aggregate.

Electric Bus in Nanjing attribBut problems with full-electric vehicle technology do not end at the power station. In order to deliver that electricity to China’s city bus fleets (there are an estimated 83,000 full-electric buses operating now or in the near future in China), the required infrastructure is extremely expensive. Wang Zedong, an official in charge of China’s power vehicle test center, complains, “Just building charging stations [for Beijing’s buses] cost at least 60 million yuan [$10M USD]. How can a city bear such an expense?”

And the batteries themselves leave a lot to be desired when it comes to operating the buses, according to the article. They are unreliable, leading to customer complaints when buses don’t show up; they require charging several times a day, which represents a significant downtime (5 hours, per the specs), and they have short lifetimes, typically lasting no more than 2,000 charging cycles before needing to be replaced.

And that’s another problem: batteries are extremely expensive, running to tens of thousands of dollars or more. Amazingly, in many cases, buses with expired batteries are simply “set aside”.

Add to that the facts that batteries can overheat and catch fire, and that they are difficult to dispose of in an environmentally responsible way, and we see that full (or hybrid) electric vehicles are not fulfilling their promise in the medium and heavy duty space.

It turns out, though, that China’s conventional fuel vehicles aren’t much better. Diesel trucks and buses are China’s main source of PM2.5 pollutants, which are health-threatening particulate emissions. According to Chai Jing’s investigations, China’s environmental regulations are not being observed or enforced. Vehicles which are certified as compliant with emissions standards are in fact nothing of the kind: manufacturers save money by not installing particulate filters and other pollution mitigations. The certificate sticker on the vehicle is bogus.

Lightning Hybrids’ investment in hydraulic hybrid technology doesn’t solve all operational and environmental problems at a stroke. However, China’s problem with electric buses is proof that electric batteries are a poor solution for medium and heavy duty vehicles and serves to highlight the advantages of hydraulic energy storage: no costly infrastructure, cheap and light storage devices, low maintenance costs, zero operational downtime, no fire risk, long lifetimes and superior regenerative energy efficiency. And with the ability to reduce emissions by up to 50%, Lightning Hybrids’ system contributes to cleaner air too.

We would encourage governments and fleet operators worldwide to watch China’s experiment closely. The allure of full-electric isn’t always the answer.