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Electrification of SA public transport faces obstacles

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 29 Apr 2024
The transition to electric mobility in SA involves the electrification of buses and minibus taxis.
The transition to electric mobility in SA involves the electrification of buses and minibus taxis.

South Africa is on track for the electrification of its public transport sector, with government policies in favour of electric vehicle (EV) procurement having been implemented across some provinces.

However, the transition to electric mobility will be far from smooth, with the sector expected to encounter several barriers along the way.

This is according to the Electric Vehicle Market Intelligence Report (MIR) released this week, compiled by non-profit green economy organisation GreenCape.

The MIR provides a landscape of SA’s EV market opportunities and challenges, according to the growth potential and ability to overcome market entry barriers.

It also focuses on the investment opportunities in the electric mobility value chain, as the technology has shown evidence of viable business cases in key industries, including last-mile delivery, public transportation, freight and logistics, and private passenger transportation.

According to the report, there is a business case for the electrification of public transportation in SA, including bus and minibus taxi services in the medium-term.

As a cleaner alternative, EVs can assist public transport operators to save on operational costs, primarily fuel and maintenance costs, which would improve profitability. Other benefits include substantial improvement in battery life, lower manufacturing costs, and reduced noise and carbon emissions, notes the report.

“With an estimated two-thirds of the South African population being entirely reliant on public transport services, the transition to electric mobility in SA involves the electrification of buses and minibus taxis, in order to extend the socio-economic benefits of the EV transition to the greater population,” notes the report.

“Engagements with bus operators that are actively considering the procurement of electric buses for their fleet indicate that an annual replacement rate of 6% of the diesel bus fleet is generally applied. This replacement rate is linked to the usage and age of the existing diesel bus fleet which has a usual lifespan of 15 to 20 years.”

Government procurement policies in favour of EV procurement (provincial and municipal EV strategies) have been implemented in some parts of SA by the Western Cape provincial government, City of Cape Town, Gauteng provincial government, City of Tshwane and City of Johannesburg.

Energy security concerns

The Global Environmental Facility (GEF) has funded an electric bus pilot project that is being managed by the Development Bank of Southern Africa and implemented by the South African National Energy Development Institute.

This project will involve the procurement of 39 electric buses and the required charging infrastructure, with total funding of $4.7 million received from the GEF. The beneficiaries of this project will be the City of Tshwane, which has been allocated 20 buses, and eThekwini Municipality, which has been allocated 19 electric buses.

In Cape Town, bus company Golden Arrow has been testing electric buses since 2021. The company says that by 2025, it hopes to have at least 60 of these buses on the city’s roads, every year, over the next three years.

However, the limited availability of financing mechanisms, limited public charging infrastructure and energy security are among the challenges the sector is experiencing along the electrification journey.

It is estimated that the capital expenditure cost of an electric bus is two to three times the cost of a diesel bus (R2.7 million) and would be priced in the region of R5.4 million to R8.1 million, notes GreenCape.

“Increased levels of load-shedding in 2023 have increased energy security concerns around the electrification of public transportation fleets in SA. There is a lack of charging infrastructure and renewable electricity to meet the demand of an electric bus and minibus taxi fleet in SA. It is estimated that a fleet of 1 000 electric buses would require around 80 megawatts (MW) to 100MW of renewable energy for charging.”

Official figures published by the Road Traffic Management Corporation of SA indicate 64 916 buses, bus trains and minibuses were actively operating on South African roads in 2023.

“The field test data from a Golden Arrow’s electric bus pilot indicates that even though electric buses are two to three times the capital expenditure cost of diesel buses, the operational fuel cost savings by switching to electric buses means there is a return on investment over the lifespan of the electric bus (15 to 20 years),” according to the report.