July 16, 2024

Cleaner public transport beckons with new project

3 min read

Buses belching clouds of smoke could be a thing of the past within the next few years if a pilot project to prove the viability of electric buses delivers positive results.

By the end of 2025, South Africa’s first electric commuter buses could be on the roads of Tshwane and eThekwini municipalities as part of pilot project funded by the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) and managed by the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) and the South African National Energy Development Institute (SANEDI).

SANEDI, which was appointed by the DBSA as the project’s implementing agent, has announced that 39 buses and the associated charging infrastructure will be purchased and rolled out with the US$4.7 million in funding that the DBSA had secured from the GEF.

“Our objective with this project is to pave the way for the country to shift to electric mobility in the near future,” says Tebogo Snyer, project manager for SANEDI’s cleaner mobility programme.

The project was initiated by the DBSA in consultation with several municipalities that had expressed an interest in participating. Conceptualisation started in 2018; however, the process was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Work resumed in 2022 and, by late 2023, the DBSA had secured the necessary funding.

In terms of the project scope, the City of Tshwane will be allocated 20 buses and eThekwini 19. In both cities, electricity infrastructure will be upgraded and charging facilities installed. The project will be implemented over the period of five years, with half the buses being commissioned in the first two years and the rest later on.

“During this time, we will demonstrate the technical, operational, legal, economic and other feasibility factors, and bed down the specifications of the ecosystem needed to support electric buses in South Africa,” explains Snyer.

The first buses are expected to be on the road in the next 18 to 24 months. The project preparation phase leading up to that includes infrastructure development and consultation with stakeholders to ensure all entities in the municipalities are ready to support the project. Drivers will also be trained on how to safely operate an electric bus and manage charging cycles.

Snyer says that although the intention is to procure locally as much as possible, the buses will have to be imported, as no local manufacturing capacity exists as yet. “We do manufacture some electric charging equipment in South Africa, but what we need to procure will depend on the buses we decide to test.”

Electric vehicles (EVs) are one component of the worldwide drive to cleaner mobility, which includes natural gas. Currently, EV technology is the furthest developed and continues to advance due to the interest in it across the globe and the significant resources that China, in particular, is investing in growing the sector.

“Our view is that electric vehicle technology leads the cleaner mobility field and will continue to do for the next decade or so,” says Snyer. He expects the technology to revolutionise the transport sector in the next three to five years on the back of improved and cheaper batteries, which will also lower the cost of ownership significantly.

Currently, total of cost of ownership is 5% to 10% less than internal combustion buses, but the much higher upfront capital outlay limits adoption. The main selling points, however, are the absence of emissions and giving South Africa an alternative to imported diesel.

Regarding the impact of adding EV load to the national grid, Snyer says that switching from internal combustion to EVs in significant quantities will add additional load to the grid, albeit of a different kind. However, the impact can be managed with smart project planning and implementation that ensures fleets of buses are charged in off-peak periods.

It is also expected that technology will develop to where EVs can actively support and stabilise the grid. For now, the pilot project’s scope includes technical grid-impact analyses.

“We want to prepare South Africa for the future. When costs start to come down, local municipalities should be ready to implement the technology that will improve public transport while reducing its environmental impact,” Snyer concludes.

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