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Diesel to Electric: the global shift in public transport

Jianhua Li in Bicester

Buses in the Wrightbus factory. /CGTN
Buses in the Wrightbus factory. /CGTN

Buses in the Wrightbus factory. /CGTN

When traveling by bus in London, you may have noticed that many of the double-deckers are getting quieter.

This is largely owing to the push towards sustainable urban transport as the world confronts the pressing challenge of climate change. A significant aspect of this transformation is the conversion of diesel buses into electric versions.

Leading this shift in the UK is Wrightbus's zero-emission electric powertrains offshoot NewPower based in Bicester. The company, which aims to speed up the decarbonization process by eradicating diesel powertrains in older fleets, is eyeing the UK's fleet of more than 34,000 diesel buses.

Powertrains of diesel buses taken out and recycled at the NewPower factory in Bicester, Oxfordshire. /CGTN
Powertrains of diesel buses taken out and recycled at the NewPower factory in Bicester, Oxfordshire. /CGTN

Powertrains of diesel buses taken out and recycled at the NewPower factory in Bicester, Oxfordshire. /CGTN

As Robert Best, Director of Engineering of Wrightbus explained to CGTN: "All we do is we remove the engine and gearbox and replace it with a new power skid that has a battery pack and electric drive-line assembled into it. So it's a very quick process from a vehicle arriving on site as a diesel vehicle to it leaving as a new power vehicle takes three weeks." 

Wrightbus says the cost is about half the price of a new electric bus and the company can decarbonize about 500 buses a year.

"Every single diesel bus that is replaced by an electrical bus reduces carbon dioxide by 74 tons a year, 40,000 liters of diesel are avoided," said Jean-Marc Gales, CEO of Wrightbus. "Convincing the [total] population to switch to electric cars will take much longer than decarbonizing bus transport."

Along with producing the world's first hydrogen bus and the iconic London Routemaster, Wrightbus has unveiled plans for more jobs and widespread European expansion.

"The European market is about five times bigger than the UK market in terms of buses. So for us it's a logical next step for expansion, together with going to Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia," added Gales.

By 2035, the sales of new vehicles with internal combustion engines will be banned across the UK, which means more electric vehicles will be on the road. There is concern that the increasing usage of electricity will be a burden on the UK's national grid. A significant surge in EV adoption will increase electricity demand by up to 30 percent by 2040.

"Our buses are designed to take 150 kilowatt chargers, which is significantly more than your average car charger would be. And it does definitely require a national strategy to make sure that there is enough power available to decarbonise the fleet," said Best.

Global initiatives to reduce diesel buses

The UK has launched programmes such as the Zero Emission Bus Regional Areas (ZEBRA) Scheme to support the rollout of zero-emission buses.

Similar measures to decarbonize public transport worldwide include China's wide adoption of electric buses, the EU Green Deal and the United States' Low or No Emission Vehicle Programme.

"This is a huge market," explained Professor John Barry of Queen's University Belfast. "In terms of the electric bus market globally, it's projected to increase to 30 billion dollars by the end of this decade, and it's growing at a rapid rate - about 20 percent a year. It's an enormous market in terms of reaching net zero in transportation from many countries."


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Global green transition versus EV trade tension

As the world races towards a greener future, electric vehicles are at the forefront of the transition, although a growing trade dispute between the EU and China is disrupting the momentum. The EU is expected to slap a tariff up to 38.1 percent on Chinese-made EVs starting on 4 July, having accused the Chinese government of subsidizing its EV sector and flooding the European market with lower-priced cars.

About a fifth of electric vehicles sold in Europe in 2023 were made in China and this is likely to increase to about 25 percent this year, says the European Federation for Transport & Environment .

Chinese-made vehicles exported to Europe have largely been non-Chinese branded vehicles, including Tesla and BMW. Chinese brands, including BYD and Chery, could reach 11 percent of the European EV market in 2024, according to the federation.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen highlighted the need for a level playing field, saying "competition is only true as long as it is fair."

But Beijing called it trade "protectionism" and warned of the risk of hindering the fight against climate change.

Diesel to Electric: the global shift in public transport

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