Electric buses gaining traction in region


Chilean President Sebastián Piñera plugs charging cable into a bus during recent opening of new electric-bus charging station in Santiago. (Photo courtesy Office of the President)

For at least five decades, one of the first things visitors to the Chilean capital of Santiago notice is the cloud of air pollution permeating the metropolitan area, home to 7.1 million people. A major reason is that the mountain ranges bracketing the valley Santiago occupies trap airborne gases and particulates emitted by the local fleet of over two million vehicles. That’s why in 2016, Metbus—one of six private companies operating bus-transit lines in the city—became interested in transitioning to electric power.

“The Chinese company BYD invited us to visit its factory in the city of Shenzhen,” says Héctor Moya, Metbus’s director. “In China, 150,000 battery-powered electric buses were already in circulation; but in Latin America they still didn’t exist. We returned and got government authorization for a pilot project, which began the next year with the first two electric buses in Santiago. It was a success, and in 2018 we incorporated the first 100 into our Santiago transit network.”

Today, Metbus and the other transit companies serving Santiago collectively have 776 electric buses on the road, over 10% of the total fleet of 6,700 operating in the city. Experts say the transition is the most striking evidence yet of an emerging Latin American move to electrify municipal transit. With 80% of the region’s population now living in urban areas, and with Latin American cities boasting among the world’s highest levels of public-transit ridership, electrification of the sector makes sense for multiple reasons. An overarching one is the need for Latin American and Caribbean nations to meet voluntary climate-protection targets under the Paris Accord. But there’s also the urgent imperative of improving urban air quality that in too many cities takes a severe toll on public health.

“Transportation is responsible for approximately half of the [air] pollution in the region’s cities,” said Jolita Butkeviciene—the European Commission’s director of development and cooperation in Latin America and the Caribbean—in a recent United Nations report on electrification of transport in the region. “Guaranteeing better air quality through electric mobility can significantly improve human health and avoid deaths.”

Signs of public bus transit leading the transition to electrification of transportation in the region are being seen beyond Chile. The Colombian capital of Bogotá this month took delivery of 483 Chinese-made electric buses, with 120 of them expected to enter into service immediately and the rest scheduled to begin operating in the first half of 2021. And TransMilenio, the city’s public-transit agency, announced this month that it will purchase 406 more, which would bring the total to 889. Meanwhile, the Colombian cities of Medellín and Cali have embraced electric buses as well, already operating 64 and 29, respectively.

“Today is a historic day we can record in Bogotá’s memory,” Mayor Claudia López said on Dec. 17, speaking at a ceremony marking the delivery of the buses to TransMilenio.

Brazil has electric-bus pilot projects underway in eight cities. Among them is São Paulo, the country’s most populous city, which in 2018 passed a law that prohibits the use of fossil fuels in public transit by 2038. In Mexico City, meanwhile, the municipal government added 80 new dual-source trolleybuses to the capital’s fleet in September. The trolleybuses, now numbering 180, run on electricity drawn from overhead wires but also have batteries capable of powering them for 75 kilometers (47 miles) without being connected to the overhead lines, known as catenary. Also in September, Mexico City put its first all-electric, battery-powered bus into service, with Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum pledging at the inaugural ceremony to add more “in order to displace diesel.”

In Ecuador, President Lenín Moreno announced in Dec. 2019 that 300 electric buses would be purchased for use in Quito. The plan has been stalled, however, amid the economic slowdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. That, in turn, has made the country’s self-imposed goal of ensuring electrification of all public-transit vehicles by 2025—a target set by the National Assembly last year—even more daunting. Electric buses also are on the drawing board in Guatemala City, whose metropolitan-area population of five million makes it Central America’s largest urban center. There, a project financed by the Inter-American Development Bank (IBD) aims to introduce 17 electric buses on a municipal government-run bus route in the mass transit system, which consists of a patchwork of privately operated lines and city-run service. In the Caribbean, Barbados is at the forefront, having taken delivery of 33 electric buses in August.

Overall, more than 1,900 electric buses are providing public transit in Latin America, according to the Zero Emissions Bus Rapid-deployment Accelerator (Zebra), a coalition of organizations and businesses promoting clean-power transit in the region. That is less than 1% of total bus service, but advocates view it as a promising start to a transition in its initial stage.

The greening of transit systems is considered a crucial global goal, since transportation accounted for nearly a quarter of world greenhouse-gas emissions in 2016 and is expected to be the fastest-growing contributor to atmospheric carbon dioxide in the coming years. Chilean Environment Minister Carolina Schmidt estimates that by electrifying its public-transit system, Latin America could avoid 1.1 billion tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent. That is an amount equivalent to half of the total greenhouse-gas emissions produced last year by the region’s largest nation, Brazil. Chile has pledged to complete the transition in Santiago by 2040 and in the rest of the country 10 years later.

The public-health benefits also are compelling—especially in Latin America, where heavy urbanization and lax emission controls add up to poor air quality for millions. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), 100 million Latin Americans live in areas of poor air quality. “Electric mobility is a very logical path for our region because we should move toward decarbonization and get past obsolete technologies that impact the health of the population,” says Leo Heileman, UNEP director for Latin America and the Caribbean. “Our principal advantage is that we have a high level of electricity production from renewable sources. If we include large hydroelectric stations, Paraguay and Costa Rica have 100% [renewable power], Uruguay has 95% and other countries have 60 or 70%.”

Adds Heileman: “At the same time, many nations import fossil fuels. Why would we continue this if we have the sun, wind, water and volcanoes with which to produce electricity? There still are public policies in the region that favor fossil fuels, but after the pandemic we should not return to past practices. This crisis is a warning from nature that should push us to act on climate change, biodiversity [loss] and pollution. And it is an opportunity to reach the energy autonomy we deserve.” Experts say that largely due to their comparatively high cost, electric cars have been very slow to crack the Latin American market, though charging stations have been installed in the principal cities of Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Uruguay. UNEP says that from January 2016 to September 2019, approximately 6,000 new electric automobiles were registered throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. While that rate of growth is expected to increase, experts say conversion of the region’s bus fleets to electricity presents the region’s most immediate opportunity for meaningful clean-transportation gains.

In part, that is because public transit buses run on predetermined routes, which makes the installation and use of charging stations more manageable. Also, the buses’ intensive use ensures a quicker return on investment than in the case of private cars. And perhaps most importantly, the role of buses as a means of transportation in Latin America will only become more crucial as the region’s cities continue to grow. Though public-transit ridership fell 70% due to the pandemic, it is recovering and a return to historic levels is expected.

The chief obstacle to electrification of bus transit is the capital cost, which at the outset is steep. Currently, electric buses cost approximately $350,000 each, compared to $200,000 for the Euro VI, which is considered one of the cleanest diesel-powered buses. “The technology is improving and the prices for [electric] buses are going down,” says Heileman. “When the difference between electric buses and conventional ones is just US$30,000 to $40,000, [electric buses] are going to win definitively.”

Weighing in favor of electric buses from a budget standpoint is their lower operating and maintenance costs compared to those of conventional buses, says Metbus’s Moya, whose agency runs 1,540 buses in Santiago, 436 of them electric.

In Chile, the electric utility company Enel has financed the buses by purchasing them and leasing them over 10 years to Metbus. The agreement stipulates that if Metbus fails to make its lease payments for the vehicles, the government in its role of guarantor will ensure the leases are taken over by a new operator, allowing the buses to continue in service.

Electrifying mass transit can pose enormous challenges, even in the most forward-looking countries. Costa Rica, known for its environmentally friendly policies, last year announced decarbonization targets that call for ratcheting down the public-transit bus fleet’s greenhouse gas emissions 70% by 2035 and 100% by 2050. Yet the country only has five electric buses, three of which were put into service this month on a trial basis after being donated by the German government.

The Costa Rican capital of San José, like a number of cities in Latin America, has strong interest in electrification; but to make progress, experts say, it must restructure its public-transit system. “San José does not have an integrated mass-transit system; instead it has individual [bus] owners, which makes it much harder to finance electric bus costs,” says Sebastián Galarza, who works in Chile as a transport and energy sector researcher for the nonprofit Mexico-based Mario Molina Center for Research and Development. “Chile has a formalized and integrated public-transportation system which has bank guarantees for its financing. In addition, the government has promised that if the [system] operator withdraws from service, the electric buses will not be discarded. Not all countries in the region have this arrangement.”

Countervailing economic interests and policies also pose a challenge. Chile has made rapid progress converting its bus fleet in part because it does not produce oil, says Manuel Olivera of Colombia, the Latin American regional director of C40, a global grouping of cities formed to promote climate protection. “But in Colombia the discussion is what are we going to do with our [locally produced] diesel when zero-emissions transportation gains ground,” Olivera says. “The same is happening in Argentina, where electromobility has advanced least because public transportation has access to diesel fuel at a government-subsidized price.”

C40 backs the Zebra project along with the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), a nonprofit with offices in Brazil, China, Germany and the United States. This month Zebra organizers along with bus manufacturers, bus dealers and investment funds announced their intention to join forces and provide 3,000 electric buses for four Latin American cities—in Chile, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico—during 2021. The statement was signed by 17 entities in all, including Chinese electric-bus makers BYD, Foton and Yutong as well as private and public investment sources including Brazil’s state-run National Bank for Economic and Social Development (BNDES).

All electric buses on the road in Latin America and the Caribbean are Chinese-made, a reflection of the subsidized prices China offered in order to enter foreign markets. Electric-vehicle manufacturing within the region remains limited. In November, Ford began making the electric-powered version of its Mustang, the Mach-E, in Mexico, and Volkswagen has said it intends to produce electric vehicles in Brazil. The Chinese company BYD, manufacturer of more than 600 of the 1,900 electric buses in Latin America, operates a factory in the Brazilian city of Campinas, where it produces electric-bus chassis with parts made in China. The buses are then assembled in the region, principally by the Brazilian bus-body makers Marcopolo and Caio. Local companies make 50% of the buses’ components currently and are expected to boost that share to 70% in 2022, says Adalberto Maluf, BYD’s marketing and sustainability director in Brazil. BNDES, he adds, is helping to finance this expansion.

On the demand side, meanwhile, green-transit advocates are showing signs of cooperation. Groups from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay have formed the Latin American Association for Sustainable Mobility (Alamos), under UNEP auspices. Juan Carlos Botrán, president of one member group—the Electric Mobility Association of Guatemala (Amegua)—says the main objective is to exchange information, adding that interest in member countries is strong.

Though the pandemic and associated economic crisis have slowed the transition to electric buses in Latin America and the Caribbean, experts say the process is irreversible. “In Santiago the electric buses are highly prized by the public because they neither generate noise nor pollution,” says Chilean Transport Minister Gloria Hutt. “Different financing models can be used in the transition. And apart from the need countries have to reduce their [greenhouse-gas] emissions, there are market forces that also are pushing hard. Chile can share its experiences with the rest of the region.”

- Daniel Gutman

In the Index: Riders emerge from one of 64 electric buses now in operation in Medellín, Colombia. (Photo courtesy of Zebra Project)

Juan Carlos Botrán
Electric Mobility Association of Guatemala (Amegua)
Guatemala City, Guatemala
Tel: +(502) 2203-6700
Sebastián Galarza
Transport and Energy Sector Researcher
Mario Molina Center for Research and Development
Santiago, Chile
Tel: +(562) 247-9650
Leo Heileman
Latin American and Caribbean Office
UN Environment Programme
Panama City, Panama
Tel: +(507) 302-4500
Gloria Hutt
Chilean Minister of Transportation and Telecommunications
Santiago, Chile
Tel: +(562) 2421-3000
Adalberto Maluf
Marketing Director
BYD Brazil
Campinas, Brazil
Tel: +(55 119) 7472-8583
Héctor Moya
Santiago, Chile
Tel: +(562) 2764-6080
Manuel Olivera
Regional Director for Latin America
C40 Cities
Bogotá, Colombia
Tel: +(57 1) 612-2396