City Council gets update on study on future fuels for CAT

Most of the vehicles used by Charlottesville Area Transit to carry passengers around the community currently use diesel, but a study is underway to come up with alternatives to how to transition the fleet to ones that emit fewer or no greenhouse gas emissions. 

At their meeting on July 17, 2023, Council learned from CAT director Garland Williams that the scope of the study was extended. 

“Eleven months ago when we started down this process, it was a study just directed by CAT,” Williams said. “Since that we did some coordination between other departments so we added environmental sustainability. We also added Neighborhood Development Services.” 

The city hired Kimley Horn to conduct the work. Williams said that firm conducted a similar study for Jaunt which was completed last December. (view the Jaunt study)

Williams said the goal is to include zero-emissions vehicles as part of the mix. 

“But we also want to make sure that ultimately we are going to be reliable because ultimately that’s what’s going to make sure that we have the greatest impact on this region,” Williams said. 

After a year of work, all that’s available for review is a feasibility study according to project manager Mike Shindledecker of Kimley Horn. (view the presentation to Council)

“We do not have a recommendation yet,” Shindledecker said. “This is determining what we can do, what is capable, how do we get to zero emissions with the different options available. What are the levers we can push and pull.”  

At the same time, Kimley Horn is also looking into space needs for CAT. If more buses are needed, there will need to be room to park them.

The plan to get to zero emissions buses is expected to be completed in the fall so that the agency can seek grants to pay for new vehicles. 

To recap, Charlottesville has a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2030 and to be carbon-free by 2050. The scenarios presented to Council are based on a “system optimization” conducted by two years ago that has not been implemented. To recap, here are a few articles:

“Good planning says we should design a system that meets the needs of our community first and then work with technology in order to implement that system,” Shindledecker said. “That’s the process we took and that’s why we’re building off of the system optimization.”

Yet, CAT is also embarking on a new Transit Strategic Plan which “presents CAT with an opportunity to evaluate and update our services and network to respond to changes in our community.”  Will that make this fuel study obsolete? Either way, Shindledecker reviewed the types of vehicles. 

Both internal combustion engines and hybrid electric vehicles produce emissions. Battery electric vehicles and fuel cell electric vehicles do not directly do so. Fuel cells use hydrogen through an electrochemical process to charge batteries while in use. 

There are several scenarios:

  • Transition existing diesel fleet to clean diesel
  • Switch to battery electric vehicles. This also includes three separate scenarios for specifics of how to make the transition. One of them would require more buses than usual to allow for recharge time. Another assumes fast-charging sites during layovers, but the technology isn’t quite there yet.
  • Switch to hydrogen which would require construction of a cryogenic storage and fueling facility.
  • Switch to compressed natural gas which would require a new fueling facility.

Some other factors to keep in mind as we wait for the full study to be published.

  • Batteries with larger range are bigger and reduce the capacity for passenger space.
  • Batteries have less capacity in lower temperatures.
  • There are concerns about whether there is a sufficient workforce to be able to work on vehicles with alternative fuels.
  • Routes with lots of hills are more challenging for batteries as more charge is required to make the climb.
  • Federal procurement rules require vehicles to be used for their entire useful life before replacements can be scheduled. Federal funding makes up the vast majority of the cost of each bus.

“Their parameters are still 12 years and 500,000 miles,” Williams said. “We have to meet not one but both before we able to replace. The majority of our fleet right now are more than 14 years old. We have ten hybrid vehicles.”

Williams said those hybrid vehicles were not really ready to be on the road, but CAT can’t dispose of them until they’ve been sufficiently used. 

“Hybrid vehicles stay in the shop more than they are on the road,” Williams said. “And that’s the problem with making sure we need to get to zero emissions. I’m also really concerned about reliability.” 

Recommendations will come back to Council within the next 90 days, according to Williams. 

Before you go: The time to write and research of this article is covered by paid subscribers to Charlottesville Community Engagement. In fact, this particular installment comes from the August 2, 2023 edition of the program. To ensure this research can be sustained, please consider becoming a paid subscriber or contributing monthly through Patreon.

One thought on “City Council gets update on study on future fuels for CAT

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: