Powered by the state, China takes charge of electric buses, with Shenzhen taking the lead

It’s 9pm when the first buses start arriving at the Shanghai Bashi Public Transportation depot. In the coming two hours, as they finish service around the city’s Baoshan district, almost 300 drivers will bring their vehicles in to be cleaned, maintained and parked for the night.

The queue to enter the security gate grows, but the employee in charge of the petrol pumps has little to do; he battles boredom with his phone while buses pass by. And his future employment prospects look even bleaker.

Two-hundred forty of the buses here, at Shanghai Bashi’s second-division depot, are fully electric, and it seems likely that, next year, no combustion engine will enter the premises at all. In an effort to curb pollution and noise, China’s most populous city expects the substitution of all traditional vehicles in its public transport system to be completed two years ahead of schedule.

That helps explain why the queue of buses has moved on so swiftly to the washing tunnel.

“EV [electric vehicle] buses use a high voltage system that generates a lot of static electricity and, therefore, catches a lot of dust,” says depot manager Li Hong. “We can’t use water to clean the engine, so we have installed a high-pressure, dry-ice cleaning machine. It’s more expensive than conventional cleaning because the tunnel requires a powerful vacuum system to catch all the dust [which is stored in drawers inside the wall], but we save water and reduce the amount of particles in the air even further.”

Nicknamed Black King Kongs, Yutong buses are the latest addition to Shanghai’s municipal fleet. Although they don’t make much noise – “Around 50 decibels, half of what a combustion engine can create,” Li says – and so tend to catch jaywalkers by surprise, they are safer in other ways.

Zhang Hui, a Shanghai Bashi driver on Route 189, points to a black box on the dashboard of his Yutong. “This has a camera and the system can tell if I’m tired or distracted and sound an alarm,” says Zhang. Li dismisses widespread concerns about exploding batteries: “They’ve proven to be completely reliable and safe.”

One of four electric models acquired by Shanghai since 2016, the Black King Kong is also comfortable. Zhang is especially happy with his seat, which heats in winter and cools in summer. Passengers do not benefit from that particular luxury but seem to approve of the spacious, silent interior and the new ticket machines, which accept transportation cards, QR codes generated by phones, the near field communication (NFC) chips of smartphones, even good old-fashioned cash.

“But the most important thing is the range of the vehicle, because it can run up to 220 km even with the heating on,” says Zhang, pointing at a display that reveals he’s travelled 136km (84.5 miles) today, and the battery retains 46 per cent of its capacity.

A cleaner wearing a protective mask has finished with his vehicle, so Zhang drives his bus over to one of the depot’s 102 charging poles. Another employee plugs the Black King Kong in. If the battery had been completely discharged, it would have taken four hours 

"Each year, we purchase buses with a longer range and higher specifications for less money. EV technology advances fast and main­tenance is easier than with combustion engines"

Li Hong, electric bus depot manager

to reach 100 per cent, or half that time if the pole were set to fast char­ging, in which case just one vehicle can be hooked up at a time, instead of four.

“The only thing I care about is having the bus fully charged by 4am, when my colleagues set out for work,” laughs Zhang.

He doesn’t know it, but Zhang’s bus saves the city’s 24 million inhabitants 356 tonnes of carbon dioxide, 28kg of nitrogen oxide and 26kg of parti­culate matter every year, according to the Shanghai Municipal Transportation Commission. And that calculation takes into account the pollution produced by generating the electricity needed to power each vehicle – about 300 kilowatt-hours for a full charge – based on the current energy production mix of the city.

“Whenever possible we charge the buses at night, when electricity is cheaper [0,04 € per kWh], and all operations are remotely supervised from our control room,” says Li.

Here, wall screens show the

real-time charging status of each pole and employees can act swiftly if an error is detected – batteries can be damaged if they are overcharged, for instance.

The 240 electric buses at the Baoshan depot are just a fraction of the 9,368 owned by Shanghai operators, 55 per cent of the entire city fleet. Also plying the streets of Shanghai are 7,300 EVs of other descriptions – including mail delivery vans and cleaning trucks, as well as 8,000 rental cars, distributed across 3,600 pickup points; 1.2 million users make 50,000 daily trips in these cars. Additionally, Shanghai introduced its first batch of electric taxis in November.

These numbers, achieved so early in the EV era, would make any megacity in the world proud. New York, by comparison, expects to completely electrify its bus fleet only by 2040. Nevertheless, if it wishes to catch the city leading the charge in China, Shanghai will have to stomp down on the accelerator. Shenzhen retired its last combustion-engine taxis at the end of December, authorities claim, and has entered 2019 as the world’s first city with an all-electric public transport network.

According to data offered by the Shenzhen transportation authorities to Post Magazine, China’s Silicon Valley now operates 16,259 electric buses – triple the number in New York – made by four domestic brands, and 19,000 EV taxis: all BYD e6 vehicles. They are recharged at 5,100 public poles at 270 stations across Shenzhen.

The charging infrastructure adjacent to Futian Bus Station is operated by state-owned Potevio, and the frenzy here never abates.

“There is space to charge 20 buses at any given time, but we run around the clock,” says manager Li Shurong. “Operators prefer to charge at night and save some money, but there are not yet enough charging stations for such a large fleet.”

Shenzhen’s achievement is the culmination of a process that began ahead of the 2011 Universiade – the sporting event for university athletes was chosen as a trial for electric buses – and an example for the rest of the world from the most polluting country on Earth.

The city had, in 2009, been named among the 13 in which elec­tric public transport projects would be piloted, and Zheng Jingyu, who oversees the bus fleets for Shenzhen’s transportation commission, said ambitions soared after Xi Jinping took charge of the country in 2013.

Countrywide policy had been set at the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party, in 2012, during which green development was made a priority and the building of an ecological society a long-term goal. “Green mountains and clear water are equal to moun­tains of gold and silver,” Xi reminded his countrymen a year later.

According to a Bloomberg New Energy Finance study published last year, China introduces 9,500 new electric buses – equivalent to London’s entire fleet – every five weeks. The study also estimates that of the 385,000 electric buses in operation worldwide, 99 per cent run in China. In contrast, only 1.6 per cent of vehicles in Europe are electric and the percentage drops to a marginal 0.5 per cent in the United States.

“There are several reasons behind Shenzhen’s success,” says Zheng. “First and foremost is the sound economic environment. This makes the huge investment needed to substitute so many buses possible. Then comes the open and innovative character of the city; both its citizens and its government are keen to try new things. It was the first place where China experimented with open­ing up reforms and now it pays more attention to environmental protection.

“Finally, the fact that many automakers produce in the vicinity is also very relevant.”