In China’s plan to promote sustainable mobility, electrifying city buses is a priority. Yet, in Beijing, a pioneer in adopting battery all-electric buses, the fleet of e-buses on its streets has shrunken in the past four years after the 2008 Olympics, plagued by high operation costs.
Beijing first deployed all-electric buses powered by on-board batteries in 2001. Before the 2008 Olympics, 50 e-buses were launched running on two lines connecting the Olympic Park with the rest of the city. Charging facilities were built at the Beitucheng station, close to the park, which remains to this day the only place in the city where e-buses can get replenished.
Of the 50 buses, built by Jinghua Bus with e-drive systems supplied by China Southern Rail (CSR), over a dozen had retired by mid-2011. The remaining fleet was transferred to Line 90, which has a loop of 31km and runs through the Tiananmen Square.
Beijing’s plan to revive and expand the fleet by adding 50 more e-buses, built by Foton this time, has so far failed largely because there is no money or place to build new charging stations. The existing one at Beitucheng already operates at its full capacity and needs major upgrades or modifications to serve the Foton e-buses, which have a battery system different from that on the Jinghua ones. A supervisor at the Beitucheng charging station told reporters in a recent interview that the land he worked on had been sold and the equipment might be removed in near future.
The lithium-manganese batteries powering those Jinghua e-buses are expensive to buy and maintain. They degrade fast too.
“The batteries have a lifespan of only 2-3 years. Those installed in 2008 already needed to be replaced by the end of last year (2011),” a technician said. “The batteries degrade drastically after just half a year. At first, after being fully re-charged, a bus can run the loop three times continuously (about 100km). Now they can run only once with air conditioners on.”
Another technician estimated that operating the 30 or so e-buses cost more than 100 million Yuan a year, with each costing 7 Yuan on average running one kilometer, at least twice as much as a conventional bus. And it was very expensive to replace exhausted batteries, as the price of each new pack (needed for one e-bus) reached 400,000 Yuan.
“To build a new charging station would need an investment of tens of millions of Yuan. Our operation so far shows that all-electric buses are not profitable at all. They are bottomless holes. For the environment, hybrid, natural gas, or trolley buses are more practical choices,” the supervisor declared.