Op-Ed: Sun Metro – Go Electric with $48M in COVID Funds, Methane Gas-powered buses obsolete

Sun Metro’s plan for the use of almost $48M in COVID stimulus to purchase methane gas fueled buses and the associated infrastructure is shortsighted.

A movement toward electric buses would improve air quality, reduce carbon emissions, and better position El Paso for funding connected to Biden’s American Jobs Plan and a potential Green New Deal.

At the April 24 meeting of the El Paso Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), Sun Metro gave a presentation outlining its use for nearly $48M in COVID stimulus funds from the federal government’s Corona, Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) and Corona Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Acts (CRRSAA).

MPO members Mayor Leeser and city council member Cassandra Hernandez were in attendance.

This agenda item discussed new expenditures in transportation infrastructure and is a continuation of the fossil fuel status quo with the purchase of 16 new compressed natural gas (CNG) fueled buses. Natural gas is primarily made up of methane (CH 4 ) and is also referred to as methane gas.

With the Biden Administration negotiating the $2.3T American Jobs Plan and potentially a Green New Deal, El Paso would be better situated to obtain these infrastructure funds with a more sustainable, forward looking, and non-fossil fuel strategy. The jobs bill has allocated $174B to the electric vehicle market and plans to replace 50,000 diesel buses with electric nationwide.

Given the current record low priced solar available in El Paso, and the movement throughout the US toward transport electrification, it would make sense to take a long term strategy in line with the current trends in technology, funding, and price.

Biden’s jobs bill hopes to incentivize the construction of 500,000 electric vehicle (EV) charging stations by 2030, and El Paso should be included.

A movement toward electrification for El Paso’s public transport would improve air quality and reduce carbon emissions. Even if electricity production does produce carbon emissions, an electrified bus system would still reduce localized tailpipe emissions, and the associated health concerns today while the electric grid is decarbonized over time.

Additionally, a CNG strategy is not in line with the efforts of the city to promote electric vehicles or El Paso Electric’s Transportation Electrification Plan.

There are benefits to the CNG strategy which has been chosen thus far to replace Sun Metro’s diesel buses. A CNG bus has a longer route capacity, roughly 400 miles, when an electric bus averages about 250 miles per charge. Additionally, electric buses take hours to charge, usually overnight, when a CNG bus tank can be filled in minutes.

An EV system would take a re-coordination of schedules and fill-up procedures, and that must be weighed against the benefits of lower emissions, improved health, and lower maintenance costs of electric buses.

EV bus chargers distributed throughout El Paso can also be dual use and aimed at areas less likely to have access to public transportation or EV charging. And given that electric buses do not have the harmful emissions of diesel or CNG, and the associated health risks, environmental justice concerns are reduced.

These facilities could even be used to fuel electric bicycles, which have recently gained popularity and don’t require the large investment of an electric car.

El Paso is well situated to take advantage of the new wave of clean technology given its low priced solar resource. Renewable technology prices will continue to drop as more is implemented, and gas prices will always be at the mercy of volatile global fossil fuel markets
and price spikes during crises.

The recent increase of electricity prices by El Paso Electric, due to methane gas price fluctuations, and the Texas Freeze, due to unreliable methane gas, both serve as examples.

The minor adjustments in terms of route distance and fuel scheduling are far outweighed by the long term savings an EV system can offer. A movement toward an electric public transportation system will better position El Paso to receive funding from the American Jobs Act, which will be aimed at green technology and electric vehicles.

Upcoming federal funding will be directed toward electric vehicles and infrastructure, CNG is a step backwards. A movement toward electric buses will be a strong investment in El Paso’s sustainable future. The immense solar resource coupled with the continued drop in prices for renewable and electric vehicle technology will provide long term savings for the Sun City.

An EV plan will lower tailpipe emissions and improve health locally, while also lowering carbon dioxide emissions and methane leakage, assisting globally in the fight against climate change.

Author: Ryan Brown

Brown is an independent energy and climate policy consultant and project manager who was an intervenor in NMPRC proceedings regarding the Newman 6 capacity addition. He has previously worked with the UN Economic Commission for Europe Sustainable Energy Division and the EU Energy Community. He is a graduate of the Jackson School of Geosciences and LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin.


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