InTransit

2022

Accelerating Electrification Through Partnerships

How the UTA is using collaboration to expand its fleet of electric vehicles and rolling stock

By  Hal Johnson, PTP, AICP, CTP, Manager, Project Research and Project Development | Utah Transit Authority

The Utah Transit Authority has been working in the electric vehicle space since we implemented our first light rail train in 1999. Since then, we have been committed to advancing the agency’s electrified fleet plan. By 2040, we intend to replace approximately 40% of our diesel-powered buses with battery electric buses. The goal of this initiative is to increase operating and energy efficiency, reduce emissions and environmental impacts. Battery buses get the equivalent of 15-20 mpg vs. 4-5 mpg for a diesel bus. Additional goals include increasing the use of renewable energy and ultimately the development of an electric vehicle ecosystem. We also are working on plans to electrify on-demand vehicles, paratransit buses, vanpool vans, white fleet vehicles and eventually our commuter rail system.

Partnerships have been one of the most effective strategies for accelerating our electrification plans. Following are a few examples and how we benefit from them.

Achieving mutual goals

We recently implemented an interagency partnership agreement with Rocky Mountain Power, Utah’s primary supplier of electricity and renewal energy. The agreement focuses on advancing five areas of common interest:

  • Energy efficiency
  • Electric vehicles
  • Electrical infrastructure
  • Grid resilience
  • Research and grants

One early success from the partnership was the conversion of the S-Line (streetcar) to be powered with 100% renewable energy.

Conducting research

We also collaborate with academic institutions to help advance our program, such as the University of Utah and Utah State University. Researchers at the University of Utah helped develop an optimized bus-charging infrastructure design plan. Utah State University has a number of projects underway with UTA and other transit providers. The university also has developed a partnership with several other universities to advance power electronic development, grid management and vehicle electrification.

To date, our partners, Utah State University, Rocky Mountain Power and ABB Power Systems, have received more than $13 million from the U.S. Department of Energy in research grants.

In addition to DOE-funded research, Rocky Mountain Power funded a $2 million research initiative to evaluate the impacts of the large-scale implementation of battery electric bus technology and the impact on the electrical grid. The focus of the initiative is to develop control systems that could reduce the peak impacts of high-powered bus chargers on the electrical grid. Utah State University is developing technology to momentarily downgrade or turn off our bus chargers when light rail trains, which are connected to the same node on the grid, accelerate from passenger stations. The technology doesn’t affect our ability to charge the buses, but it makes a significant difference to the utility in flattening the usage spikes. Part of our motivation for helping Rocky Mountain Power is monetary. Each time one of our light rail trains creates a spike in the power grid, we pay a monthly demand fee, which can be significant. By assisting Rocky Mountain Power in its efforts to level electricity distribution, we can reduce our costs and help reduce Rocky Mountain Power’s need to develop new electrical generation or upgrade the electrical grid.

Project Implementation

In 2018, UTA was awarded $5.7 million from the Federal Transit Administration under its Low or No Emission Vehicle Program – 5339 (c) for the purchase of five buses and charging infrastructure. Construction of the charging stations was completed and operation began in 2020. UTA operates three buses – the first all-electric buses in our fleet, and Utah State University operates the other two. The project includes a high-powered overhead charger and two depot chargers. The total project budget was $6.32 million, with federal funds covering 85.9% of that cost. The university estimates the five buses save an average of 48,500 gallons of diesel annually.

Park City Transit System and the UTA jointly applied for another FTA Low or No Emission Vehicle Program – 5339 (c) grant to purchase two battery electric buses and charging infrastructure. Rocky Mountain Power funded a portion of the charging infrastructure. Buses from this grant will be operating on the PC-SLC Connect route, which connects downtown Salt Lake City to Summit County and the Park City Transit System.

Partnerships can be excellent sources of funding, as illustrated above. Another example is our partnership with the State of Utah itself. On Aug. 12-13, 2021, we held the first “Free Fare for Clean Air” event in partnership with the Utah State Legislature. The program is part of a data-driven effort to improve air quality along the Wasatch Front by encouraging people to use transit as an alternative to driving.

Coming Soon: All-Electric BRT Route

UTA’s Ogden Bus Rapid Transit will consist of 11 all-electric buses. The new mode will not only offer the community a better circulator service from the UTA FrontRunner to downtown Ogden and Webster State University, but it will create a zero emissions alternative to single-occupancy vehicles. Buses on the 5.3-mile line will stop every 10 minutes at 13 stations. The route is scheduled to open in late 2023.

Funding for the Free Fare Days was made possible by House Bill 353, sponsored by Rep. Joel Briscoe during the 2019 Legislative Session. The August 2021 event was so successful UTA partners committed $1.1 million to offer a second event, Free Fare February 2022, this time systemwide. Funding partners included: Wasatch Front Regional Council, Mountainlands Association of Governments, Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County and Utah Division of Air Quality. Free Fare February produced a significant increase in ridership on the UTA system. The system reported more than a 16% increase on weekdays, more than a 58% increase on Saturdays and more than a 32% increase on Sundays. New riders accounted for over 21% of trips taken, and 66% of survey respondents said they did not use a vehicle to reach transit.

In another example, the state of Utah earmarked a $15 million grant to Utah State University for developing a battery electric FrontRunner FRA-compliant train set. There are significant energy savings by moving toward electric commuter rail cars. The Environmental and Energy Study Institute notes: “Diesel-powered trains transfer about 30-35 percent of the energy generated by combustion to the wheels, while supplying electricity directly from an overhead powerline transfers about 95 percent of the energy to the wheels.” Batteries have similar efficiency.

Exchanging expertise and innovations

UTA has made great strides in understanding how electrification can be implemented for all modes. Our partnership with Rocky Mountain Power has been instrumental in identifying “win-win” opportunities. As a result, we are poised to take advantage of state and federal funding opportunities that will make Utah a leader in developing electrified transportation networks.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hal Johnson, PTP, AICP, CTP
Manager, Project Research and Project Development
Utah Transit Authority

Hal Johnson, PTP, AICP CTP, is the manager of research and project development at the Utah Transit Authority. He is an adjunct instructor at the University of Utah in the College of Architecture and Planning.

Contact him at hjohnson@rideuta.com or (801) 237-1905.