The electrification of the UTA fleet will require more partnerships

Political, public and private teamwork will yield faster and cleaner results

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Attendees check the battery of a UTA electric bus, during a UTA electrification forum, Friday, September 23, 2022.

A new electric bus, with that fresh scent typically found in private vehicles, was a star attraction Friday at the Utah Transit Authority’s first-ever forum on electrifying transportation across the state.

That smell “won’t last long,” said Jonathan Salazar, maintenance manager for the Ogden UTA fleet, to which this particular bus belongs. The vehicle, he noted, has many other more permanent qualities, ranging from improved torque to a near-silent operating system.

UTA employees, state and local officials, and transit experts gathered on a blue afternoon to view the electric bus and tour the Depot District Clean Fuels Tech Center at the transit authority’s headquarters in Common of Salt Lake City. The morning message focused on the importance of interagency projects and the formation of private/public partnerships in promoting cleaner energy for the future of public transit.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Attendees tour the new Depot District Clean Fuels Tech Center which is under construction, during the UTA Electrification Forum, Friday, Sept. 23, 2022.

Guests and guest speakers included Republican Rep. Blake Moore, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, and Packsize CEO Hanko Kiessner.

Discussions on how to “energize Utah” began with an introduction from UTA Board Chairman Carlton Christensen.

“Our goal is to lay the foundation for a shared vision for electrified transportation infrastructure on the Wasatch front,” Christensen said. He noted that UTA’s board recently discussed implementing a 40% battery electric fleet over the next 20 years.

“However,” Christensen said, “the progress we can all make working together will far exceed what we can do individually.”

UTA currently operates 13 electric buses. The agency has 20 more “on order”, UTA spokesman Carl Arky said, adding he could not say exactly when they will be rolled out due to supply chain volatility. .

Regan Zane, director of the Aspire Research Center at Utah State University, echoed Christensen’s comments. “Addressing this with a common and coordinated approach can actually lead to a cost-effective solution that is market-driven rather than regulation-driven at all costs,” Zane said.

His presentation focused on the costs associated with electrical infrastructure, and in particular the inefficient and relatively expensive distribution of electricity along powered TRAX lines.

Instead, he would like to see a system where buses, trains and electric vehicles all use a “multi-megawatt substation” to reduce overall charging costs.

“I think the gas station model, which we are currently following, is the wrong model,” said James Campbell, director of innovation and sustainability at Rocky Mountain Power. “We’re going to move away from that as the technology develops.”

Research and pilot projects are also underway that could put Utah at the forefront of air quality and clean energy.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Attendees tour the new Depot District Clean Fuels Tech Center which is under construction, during the UTA Electrification Forum, Friday, Sept. 23, 2022.

“Utah is at the forefront of air pollution measurement,” said Daniel Mendoza of the University of Utah Air Quality Monitoring Project. “We really want to encompass almost a cradle-to-grave approach, if you will, of measuring air pollution to developing ethical policy.”

Part of this monitoring approach involved placing three types of air monitoring sensors on three UTA electric buses. The three buses have been traveling and collecting data along the western and eastern sides of the Salt Lake Valley for about eight months.

“The pilot project has been deemed a success,” said Michael Shea, director of sustainability for Salt Lake County. The next step will be to place monitors on the additional 22 electric buses UTA ​​is expected to receive next year, he said.

Once this is complete, Shea said, the region “will create one of the most detailed pollution mapping systems in the world.”

Funding discussions, of course, are also on the table. With public/private collaborations, federal dollars could be leveraged and even Volkswagen legal settlement funds are targeted to help the state build more faster charging stations along key corridors in the coming years.

As talk of electrification promises and progress fueled the event, the realistic question of “how soon” also surfaced. When could renewables play a bigger role in powering the state grid? (According to data from the Energy Information Administration, coal-fired power plants accounted for 61% of Utah’s net electricity generation in 2021).

Campbell with Rocky Mountain Power could not provide an exact date, but noted an ongoing nuclear project in Wyoming and the utility company’s plans to retire more coal-fired plants in coming years.

This story is part of the Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identifying solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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