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Electric Buses as Emergency Power Sources? It’s Already Happening

It takes a lot of battery power to operate electric buses. Most have anywhere from 200 to 400-kilowatt hours (kWh) of capacity, while some house batteries with 700 kWh of capacity or more. Electric buses have so much battery capacity, in fact, that in some places they are being used to send energy back to the grid. Now a new initiative is underway that would let electric buses serve as emergency power sources for public buildings during wildfires, heat waves, and other grid emergencies.

That initiative, called the V2B Oakland Project, aims to demonstrate the value of bidirectional electric vehicle charging to support an innovative vehicle-to-building resilience hub.

In layman’s terms, that means the project will use electric bus batteries to power buildings when needed.

The V2B Oakland project, announced in October, is backed by $3.2 million in funding from the California Energy Commission (CEC) and includes another $400,000 in matching funds from the nonprofit West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (WOEIP) and regional transit operator AC Transit. Other funding contributions have come from a long list of technology partners. The Atlanta-based Center for Transportation and the Environment (CTE) is taking a lead advisory role on the project. Others involved include The Mobility HouseNew Flyer of AmericaSchneider Electric, and the City of Oakland.

Photo Courtesy mobilityhouse

In a press release, the group said electric-drive bus fleets are “uniquely suited” to provide backup power because of their energy storage capacity, electrical architecture, independent mobility, and ability to be quickly dispatched. These fleets have numerous advantages over diesel generators – the current default technology for emergency backup power – in that they provide quick response times, don’t emit harmful pollutants, and are more cost-effective.

Another advantage is that electric buses, unlike diesel generators, perform an important function other than serving as backup power suppliers by providing transit to local residents.

A growing number of electric buses are being used for vehicle-to-grid (V2G) services, making their batteries available for grid support when they are plugged in. School buses are especially useful because they are only in operation a couple of hours a day.

Photo Courtesy mobilityhouse

The long-range goal of the V2B Oakland project is to validate the technology of using electric buses as backup power sources when the grid fails. Its immediate focus will be on providing backup power to the West Oakland Branch of the Oakland (Calif.) Public Library, which is where local residents can take shelter in times of extreme heat or wildfire smoke. 

Oakland, along with the rest of California and other parts of the United States, faces an accelerated risk of losing grid power during extreme weather events.

Buses powered by batteries or hydrogen fuel cells can be deployed quickly to provide backup power – as long as buildings are equipped with bidirectional chargers and control systems that can move power from buses to buildings. 

Each battery electric bus (BEB) in the project will contribute six hours of backup power to critical loads at the library, while each hydrogen fuel cell-electric bus (FCEB) will provide up to 11 continuous hours of backup power. Using these power sources will displace nearly 100 pounds of carbon emissions per hour compared to traditional diesel backup generators.

V2B leaders will work in coordination with bus manufacturer New Flyer of America, a subsidiary of NFI Group. It marks the first time a U.S. transit agency will have the capability to use a hydrogen vehicle for V2B backup power.

Photo Courtesy NFI Group 

“By bringing together leading-edge technological innovation and sustainability, we are able to offer much needed emergency response benefits for both transit agencies and communities,” Jason Hanlin, Director of Technology Research at CTE, said in a statement. “For a project with so many key players, we are excited to apply CTE’s proven project management approach to usher this novel project from concept to fruition.”


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