As we go to press, details have emerged of the much-delayed funding announcement for the Ultra Low Emission Bus Scheme. It’s welcome news, amounting to 263 new electric and hydrogen buses being at least part-funded by the £48million total awarded, including more than £13million for charging infrastructure. However, the delay has caused something of an inevitable hiatus in progress on electric buses as operators and local authorities have held back on investment, according to some of the manufacturers who have a big stake in this green technology.
I understand that there were a lot of late queries from the European Commission who expressed some puzzlement about why the UK government chose to include infrastructure support for biomethane when it wasn’t possible to bid for biomethane buses under the scheme. That funding was eventually approved, however, and the question of how, and if, biomethane fits into a zero emission future is something that we will return to in our feature pages in coming months.
Government support for the introduction of new, cleaner technology is justified on the basis that part of the benefits accrue to the community in terms of cleaner air and lower carbon emissions, combined with the fact that new technologies are inevitably more expensive and often not at a commercially-viable level. Of course, part of the rationale is that such grant funding will act as a seed corn that will help the technology develop and for the gap in terms of capital costs to reduce enough to make it cost-competitive with diesel and therefore an easier choice for operators to make without requiring grant aid.
In past schemes, that scenario hasn’t always been evident, and once grants stopped, orders for greener buses dried up, but let’s hope that this time it is different. And before we get too excited, let’s remember that if you add three noughts to the £48million fund, you still don’t quite get to the level of funding being allocated to just one big rail scheme, HS2. Still plenty to do in convincing politicians that buses really do matter.