Transport Minister Chris Steel will make a pitch to the Federal Government for funding to help the ACT begin upgrading its bus fleet to zero-emission standards as part of its response to global warming and climate change.
Mr Steel, who has just returned from a study tour of major cities in the western US, said he would be meeting Chief Scientist Alan Finkel soon and will propose that the ACT be a demonstration project for bus operators in other jurisdictions.
“I’ll be putting to him, because we’re probably the only state government transit agency that hasn’t privatised its bus fleet, that we’re in a good position to trial this sort of technology and with a view to seeking any available federal funding to do so,” Mr Steel said.
The Minister visited Denver, Portland, Seattle, Sacramento and Oakland in the Bay area of San Francisco inspecting both bus and light rail programs.
He found transit agencies on the West Coast were in a similar position to the ACT with zero-emission targets but cap and trade schemes, which Coalition governments in Australia have rejected, were helping to generate the funding needed to transition to electric battery or hydrogen fuel cell buses.
He said the Oakland operator had been operating hydrogen buses for about a decade, as well as electric and hybrid, in its fleet.
Mr Steel said transit agencies were also tapping into federal funding grants to help drive this change.
“The key takeout is that there is room for federal involvement in not only light rail but the transition to a zero-emissions bus fleet and there’s certainly opportunities for investment in that area for a demonstration project in the ACT that might help other bus operators to transition their fleet as well,” he said.
But the ACT will need to decide which technology to back with pros and cons for both.
Electric buses come in at twice the cost of diesel, but with relatively small upfront infrastructure costs, and scaling up to a fleet of hundreds is a challenge.
Hydrogen buses require a large investment in upfront infrastructure but were easier to scale up, although the unit cost at this time is more than electric. That is expected to come down over time.
“We actually need to work through that complete suite of options available and look at what milestones we need to reach to be able to reach our target in 2045,” Mr Steel said.
The charging infrastructure for electric buses would be costly, for example Los Angeles, which is aiming to make all buses electric by 2029, was investing billions in gantry charging stations at depots to charge 200 buses at a time from above,” Mr Steel said.
He said the preference was for one or the other, not a mix of technologies, because that posed major maintenance challenges, with teams needing to be trained in both electric and hydrogen technology.
“All major bus operators are looking at how to transition and work out a plan to do that but there is still concern about a lack of market maturity for electric and hydrogen technology, and getting the infrastructure to scale up the bus fleet is a major issue,” he said.
States are setting interim targets to plan their transition, such as 25 per cent of new buses purchased need to be zero emissions by 2023 and all purchases to be zero-emission by 2029. California aims to have 100 per cent zero-emission buses by 2040, five years earlier than the ACT.
But all operators are still buying diesel buses, some with low-emission technology, in their fleet replacement programs in the short term.
Asked whether the ACT target was realistic, Mr Steel said he thought it gave the Territory sufficient time to transition. “What we need to know is that really detailed work. How do we work through the complexities we know and then set up some interim targets, and make some tough decisions around investment in infrastructure,” he said.
An ACT tender for 40 buses is current, with a preference for zero-emission technology.
Mr Steel will soon table a report on his trip in the Legislative Assembly, and is briefing agency officials.