KAT gets wired


With a little luck and a lot of hard work, commuters along Bus Route 17 will be the first to experience riding in one of KAT’s new all-electric buses by early next year. 

Also known as the Sutherland Avenue line,  Route 17 has the perfect combination of length and geography to give the first buses a thorough road test and to allow KAT workers to learn the vehicles’ quirks firsthand.

“It’s a wonderfully diverse passenger line,” said Belinda Woodiel-Brill, KAT’s director of planning. “It goes through a lot of areas, it’s a one-hour round trip, there’s not a lot of hills. It’s a good sort of first route to try the buses out on, and we’ll also look at some other routes, as well. We’ve got a lot to learn, so we’ll see how all of this evolves.”

After years of discussion, the City and KAT are acquiring twelve all-electric buses out of a fleet that will eventually number in the dozens (plus the architecture needed to operate them). Of the $13 million cost, the City’s portion is around 10 percent of that, or $1.4 million.

The number of buses on order from the Canadian manufacturer New Flyer has just climbed to 18, however, thanks to $4.8 million from the federal Low and No Emission Vehicle Grant Program, officials announced this week.

It is hoped that all 18 buses will be running on the streets of Knoxville by the end of 2022.

Passenger seat on the New Flyer electric bus. Source: KAT

“This will go a long way in helping KAT transition to an all-electric fleet,” said Mayor Indya Kincannon said. “With each new electric bus, we are reducing our carbon footprint. We are moving closer toward our goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions associated with City operations by 50 percent by 2030 —  and a community-wide reduction of 80 percent by 2050.”  

Exactly how long it will take and precisely how many all-electric vehicles will ultimately be purchased is still up in the air, but officials are moving the process forward as quickly as possible.

“The 8-year replacement goal is for electric vehicles to replace our older clean diesel fleet,” said Woodiel-Brill. “We will still have hybrid electric buses.  I think the determination on whether to go 100% electric with the entire fleet would be made after getting our feet wet with these, and also seeing how all the technology progresses also.”

Switching entirely to vehicles that use electricity is a massive project that will directly affect the everyday lives of many Knoxvillians. 

While most of the 480,000 or so residents of Knoxville and Knox County use privately owned vehicles to get around, not everyone can afford their own automobile. Many others are physically (or legally) unable to operate one. To these people, public transportation is an absolute necessity for them to work, shop, or do any of the countless out-of-the-home tasks that life requires. 

KAT’s 71 buses carry around 3 million passengers each year on its 23 bus routes and three downtown trolley routes. There are 1,150 bus stops scattered throughout the city, and bus routes come within a half-mile of 80 percent of the population. 

With more than 44 percent of the community’s carbon emissions coming from transportation, KAT and the city of Knoxville have been transitioning to sustainable mobility over recent years, with hybrid-electric vehicles making up more than 30 percent of its current fleet. Knoxville aims to reduce emissions by 50 percent by 2030 for its operations compared with 2005’s carbon levels, and a companion goal is an 80 percent community-wide reduction by 2050.

Switching to electric buses should save money as well as cut pollution, officials hope.

Twelve dispensers will be installed to charge each of the twelve electric buses due to arrive this year. Source: KAT

Each electric bus will provide a reduction of 100 to 160 tons of greenhouse gas per year compared to a 40-foot diesel bus. Every one of the buses purchased by KAT should also save up to $400,000 in fuel costs over the course of its projected 12-year life, and the lack of an engine, transmission and other parts should cut maintenance costs by up to $120,000 per vehicle, New Flyer officials said.

So far, only one of the 12 buses from the initial order has been delivered to KAT, with the rest in different stages of production at New Flyer’s factory.

“It’s quite a process,” Woodiel-Brill said. “Production has slowed down across the board  with COVID.”

The contract with New Flyer includes the installation of infrastructure consisting of six depot chargers, one portable trailer-mounted charger and design-build support from New Flyer Infrastructure Solutions.

Right now, that supporting infrastructure is being built at KAT’s Magnolia Avenue facility, which is also where the bus fleet is stored. KAT drivers are learning now to handle the electric behemoths and maintenance crews are being shown how to keep them running, Woodiel-Brill said.

“It’s sort of a different beast,” she explained. “There’s all kinds of tricks and tips to get the best performance from electric vehicles.”

At the end of the day, of course, all the planning and preparation won’t be worth much if KAT passengers find the vehicles to be unpleasant.

Woodiel-Brill, for one, thinks that’s very unlikely.

“We had an electric bus come in that we took on a test drive,” she said. “I was able to just casually stand at the front, and it was just so quiet. And super smooth. It’s going to be fun once we get these on the road.”

Conduit duct work is being installed at KAT’s Magnolia Avenue facility which will connect the charging stations and dispensers to the twelve electric vehicles. Source: KAT

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the overall price tag of the first 12 buses. The mistake has been corrected. We apologize for the error.

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com 

Published on July 16, 2021