End of the Road for Biofuels at TTC? (Update 2)

Update July 9:  The Star reports that Premier McGuinty is rethinking a commitment to 10% ethanol fuel requirements.

Update July 5:  The Guardian reports that an as-yet unpublished study by the World Bank concludes that the distortion of the world food market is a direct result of biofuels.

“Without the increase in biofuels, global wheat and maize stocks would not have declined appreciably and price increases due to other factors would have been moderate,” says the report. The basket of food prices examined in the study rose by 140% between 2002 and this February. The report estimates that higher energy and fertiliser prices accounted for an increase of only 15%, while biofuels have been responsible for a 75% jump over that period.

[End of update]

The agenda for the Commission meeting on July 10 includes a report extending the upset dollar limit on the TTC’s current contract with Suncor Energy Products for Bio-Diesel fuel.  The TTC has locked in its current fuel price only until the end of December 2008, but the contract runs through 2009.

TTC staff is concerned that a price locked-in during the current market may be unreasonably high and that better pricing may be available on the spot market.  This sort of discussion is common in TTC fuel purchase arrangements, and staff juggles things around to ensure the best ongoing price for the system’s needs.

The current price paid by TTC is $0.8752 per litre while the market price today is $1.46 for 95% No. 1 Ultra Low Sulphur diesel plus 5% virgin vegetable oil (soybean).

The fascinating comment comes at the end of the report:

While the recommended amendment value is based on the purchase of bio-fuel, staff is currently reviewing the value of the continued use of bio-fuel in consideration of the $1.5M to $2.0M premium in the cost of bio-fuel versus the actual environmental benefits as well as the impact that the use of bio-fuel is having on food prices and availability. As a result, there is the possibility that the Commission may not purchase bio-fuel for 2009.

I may sound like an environmental curmudgeon, but I’ve always felt biofuels were designed more to comfort Agribusiness than have any real benefit for the environment.  Transit’s environmental impact comes from reducing the demand for auto travel and supporting an urban form with dense populations.

Recently, we have seen the controversy over the impact of biofuels on food prices.  Yes, there are different sources for the “bio” additive and some use products that would otherwise go to waste.  If only that were the criteron for “bio” fuel being truly green, then the issues would be much clearer.

Meanwhile, a TTC decision to move away from biofuels may not have much effect on the price of soybeans, but it’s a step in having transit concentrate on what it does best — get people out of their cars.

25 thoughts on “End of the Road for Biofuels at TTC? (Update 2)

  1. I agree completely. In addition, paying 50% more for “hybrid” buses that have negligible fuel savings and relatively little benefit in reducing the associated pollution/greenhouse gas is irresponsible and stupid – but typical of government mandates. It would have been far better to invest those scarce resources in 50% more buses that could be used to “get (more) people out of their cars”.

    Biofuels and related “solutions” avoid addressing the real problem with transportation in our society. The assumption that problems associated with our lifestyle can be “solved” by changing the fuel is not founded in fact. The real solution is lower overall use of fossil fuels and an excellent way to assist in that goal is less driving and more transit.


  2. Does TTC know something our Premier doesn’t? (apparently, yes)

    bioethanol and biodiesel are great if you make it from waste like fish processing (as they do in Halifax), fast food oil or pulp mill effluent – I would bet you could make ethanol from Niagara winery and fruit wastes.

    In North America it’s solely aimed at the grain industry – in fact the US subsidises grain ethanol at 45 cents/gal while placing a tariff of 54c on imported sugar cane ethanol.

    If there was a concentrated effort to collect waste oils from all the restaurants in Toronto as well as any other suitable oils from industrial sources we could probably make local biodiesel to fuel some of the city’s fleet needs and create employment but there would be probably be difficulty in making enough to fuel the TTC.

    So there’s only one thing for it – trolleybuses 🙂

    Steve: It’s worth noting that the TTC spec calls for “virgin soybeans”. Somehow, I think that restaurant waste does not qualify.

    One big problem with biofuels is that a lot depends on the use they are put to. In a diesel engine, it’s important that impurities don’t screw up the engine or the catalytic devices that handle a lot of the cleanup of the byproducts. Purity of the input stream is important.

    A similar problem bedevils hydrogen fuel cell schemes because these are very sensitive to the presence of impurities and the source of hydrogen has to be quite pure. This adds to the refining cost.


  3. @Michael Greason

    One thing you’re forgetting is that you don’t get 50% more buses if you only buy diesels – you have to pay the extra drivers their salaries and benefits.

    If the hybrids aren’t producing the predicted savings then Orion should have to pay performance penalties. We did include that in the contract, right? But then they might inconveniently point out that TTC didn’t deploy hybrids on the most hybrid friendly stop-start routes (but the Express routes got them).

    Steve: The reason we spent more on hybrids was that the subsidy from Ottawa for vehicles was only available if they were “green”. None of the money would have been available otherwise. This is a clear case where some life cycle costing, including an evaluation of the benefit of just buying more diesels, would have been useful. However, at the time, the TTC wasn’t looking to increase its operating costs, and “free” buses from anyone are always welcome.

    Now that the hybrids are finally running on routes like Dufferin, we might get some better data, assuming that the TTC tracks the vehicles on those routes separately from those on the express routes. Alas, my experience with the TTC and its data collection over the years suggests that such sophisticated techniques are quite beyond them.

    Another important point about start/stop operation is that vehicles don’t run in congested conditions all day long. On a system or route with a high peak:base ratio, more travel occurs during congested hours. However, Toronto has a low peak:base ratio and runs up a lot of vehicle hours during relatively uncongested times.

    Finally, the hybrids do seem perkier on hills, as one would expect from a vehicle with an electric motor. Indeed that’s the reason the railway industry has used “hybrid” locomotives for decades. A diesel engine doesn’t have the torque to start a freight train, but the electric motor for which the diesel generates power does.


  4. Steve,

    There’s probably no need to publish this, but technically diesel locomotives aren’t hybrids. It’s just easier to send large amounts of power to the wheels by electricity than by mechanical means (e.g. a gearbox). There are new diesel/electric hybrid locomotives that store energy and reuse it during acceleration, but most locomotives just take the power from the diesel to generate electricity and then send it to motors attached to the axles.

    Keep up the great site,


    Steve: I’m using the word “hybrid” in the broadest sense that energy exists in two forms (at least) on the vehicle. Diesel fuel drives the generator and the electricity drives the train. The only real difference is the absence of a battery storage/buffer system. My point is that since the end of steam, almost all railway propulsion has used electric motors, although most people don’t know this.


  5. I agree that buses don’t run for free. Salaries and benefits (and fuel) are real components of the cost of transit service. However, on our underfunded transit service, money comes from different sources for different portions of the operating and capital budget. I still think it is a travesty in a world that has scarce and limited resources to spend 50% more in order to fulfill a “mandate” that appears to be poorly thought out in the first place. There are other politicians who I hold accountable for the underfunding of the TTC Operating Budget. (Are your ears burning Mr. McGuinty.)


  6. Last week I was riding on the best bus ever bought by the TTC – a GM Diesel. I was chatting with the driver and he shared my dim view about the quality and potential longevity of the Orion buses. This driver told me that there were buses bought by the TTC that only lasted 6 years. (Not necessarily Orions). I thought he was referring to the articulated buses from Eastern Europe (Ikaraus perhaps?) but he said that these buses were more recent. I think he said these were in the 9300 series. Is this true?

    Steve: I’m not sure which buses he refers to, but some of the original Flyers were not the greatest thing either. OBI/Orion does not have a monopoly on poor design and construction. And, yes, the artics built on Ikarus bodies fell apart rather quickly because of how they were built. Yet another case of the TTC being used as a conduit to funnel money into an Ontario company.


  7. There seems to be this belief out there that bio-fuels are the magic pill to get us completely off petro-fuels, which has lead to upward pressure on food prices. When it comes to a diesel engine, the highest efficiency (read: most energy output with least greenhouse gasses) is achieved with a mix of the two (though, I don’t know the exact proportion). An added green benefit comes from the use of waste oil, but this quickly becomes a victim of its own success as the demand outstrips the supply, and virgin food stocks are required.

    While transit’s main impact on the environment comes from reducing private auto usage, this should not preclude it from perusing additional ways to positively impact the environment. That said, the use of bio fuels often looks more like a publicity stunt on the level of a small child shouting, “Look at me! I’m green!” rather than a true effective effort. Kind of like hybrid cars, which may in fact have a worse dust-to-dust environmental impact that the average SUV, but that’s for another discussion.

    Steve: The TTC has been quite conservative about moving beyond 5% bio content due to performance problems in cold weather. Something that might work in balmy Los Angeles year round runs into problems in the frozen northland. Originally, they were using 20% during warm months, but seem to have settled on 5% all of the time.


  8. I thought he was referring to the articulated buses from Eastern Europe (Ikaraus perhaps?) but he said that these buses were more recent. I think he said these were in the 9300 series. Is this true?

    Is Michael Greason indirectly referring to the Orion VIs? If I recall, these buses were purchased in the mid to late 1990s as CNG buses, and ran on Bathurst, Lansdowne, amongst other Wilson-based routes. These were dreadfully awful buses in terms of seating and standing capacity, with the infamous far-rear exit door. I guess when the TTC abandoned CNG, they just never bothered to convert these horrible products, unlike the older Orion V lifts.


  9. It should be added that much of the fuel savings from hybrid buses/vehicles is theoretically derived from their ability to store power from braking or while the bus is at idle. Diesel-electric propulsion is inherently more efficient than diesel-mechanical, but in a smaller vehicle such as a bus, the difference isn’t substantial.

    In my mind, part of the problem is that the TTC has simply not taught the drivers that hybrid buses should not be driven the same as diesels – they will work a lot better if they are gradually brought to a stop or are allowed to coast for periods, rather than simply mashing the pedals to halt the vehicle as quickly as possible.

    When braking in a hybrid, only part of the stopping force is provided by the regenerative brake, just as on a subway or streetcar. If that force needs to be exceeded, the air brakes kick in, and thereby reducing the amount of time that the traction motor is allowed to flow power back into the batteries.

    A friend of mine who drives the hybrids frequently regularly comments that a particular bus was “a dog” at the beginning of his shift, only to remark that shortly after taking over the bus performs considerably better. He drives in the manner I outlined above, and never has trouble with staying on time on his routes.

    While there is no doubt that a lot of money could be saved in fuel costs across the whole system by teaching employees to drive like this, I am sure that the hybrids would be able to realize their true savings this way.

    Dan Garcia
    Toronto, Ont.


  10. Frankly, I think the TTC and other transit agencies should use, not bio-fuels, but “red diesel”, the tax-free fuel that agriculture uses. If we really want to lower the cost of transit for the average user, this is a great place to start


  11. Dan Garcia wrote, “much of the fuel savings from hybrid buses/vehicles is theoretically derived from their ability to store power from braking or while the bus is at idle”

    That is not true. While these contribute to fuel savings, the primary savings comes from operating an internal combustion engine in its highest efficiency range. All internal combustion engines (gasoline and diesel) have an efficiency rating that widely varies with speed and load conditions. The maximum efficiency can only be achieved when the engine is run at a nearly constant speed and load, which is next to impossible with a mechanical or hydraulic transmission. With an electric transmission, as in a diesel locomotive, the operation comes closer as it is possible to make the speed constant, but the load still varies.

    In a hybrid, the load is permitted to be made constant by having the engine and alternator provide charging current to the batteries when the traction motor load is lower than the ideal load, and to have the batteries supply the extra power when the traction motor load exceeds the ideal load. Thus, the engine and alternator can operate at a (near) constant speed and load while the batteries supply extra or take up excess power as needed.

    I worked on a project with a major telecommunications firm about 15 years ago where they replaced the conventional diesel generated power systems (where they ran continuously to supply power) for middle-of-nowhere microwave repeaters with what are called ‘cycle charge’ systems. These systems start up the diesel generator to charge batteries when needed, operating at their optimal speed and load. Then they shut down to while the batteries supply the variable electrical load. Back then, diesel fuel in these remote stations cost nearly $2 per litre (fuel cost plus shipping) and this system significantly cut fuel costs.


  12. The 9300s were the CNG equivalent of the 6700-series Orion V buses still in service. The 9300s were withdrawn years ago, and completely scrapped sometime within the last five years, while their newer, accessible counterparts (the 9400s) were retrofitted with diesels.

    Also, an inherent benefit of hybrid buses is their lack of noise. This can be extremely useful on residential routes (Rosedale, Silver Hills, Warren Park etc.) where I imagine people might be grumbling about the upcoming move to full service on every route.


  13. So the TTC had the GM Diesels as the backbone of the fleet. During the time when governments made it difficult to buy the “appropriate for transit” transit vehicle, the TTC bought various inappropriate Flyers, OBI/Orions using various inappropriate technologies including CNG. Some of the lesser disasters were converted to Diesel, others were scrapped long before their supposed useful lives were over.

    Now the TTC has committed its fuyture to the Orion Low Floor (or is that Low Quality). There seem to be three series of these, the 7300s or 7500s of seven years or so ago, the recent 8000s (with the useless seats upstairs) and the 1500s which are the hybrids (where the brakes grab). I remember when the original Low Floor Orions were premiered on the Bayview 11 (to serve Sunnybrook). Within a year or so, according to a bus driver I talked with, there were 25% where the air conditioning had failed. Squeeling and grabbing brakes were de rigeur.

    When the 8000s were still sporting the “New Bus” signs, I remember getting on one where the red button stop indicator was only loosely joined at one connection, not tightly joined at two. Tonight, when I was driving in Etobicoke (I don’t like driving, but sometimes I have to) I saw a “brand new” 8000 series bus at the side of the road out of service with the engine cover up. It seems to me (anecdotally I admit) that I see a lot of Orion Low Quality parked and out of service at the side of the road.

    My question: What is going to happen to the TTC when this fleet prematurely fails and they don’t have any (retired) reliable GM Diesels to fill the gaps. (At least once or twice a week, the Ossington bus has at least one GM Diesel. This is a “Purple Sign” accessible route. Is this a mistake in assignment or is this because there are not enough Orion Low Qualities – in actual working condition – to meet service requirements.)


  14. You need to remember that the GM Diesels at this point are 25 years old or more (twice rebuilt), and as such can’t be considered a safety net anymore. The reliability of buses in general has probably degraded to the point that the quality of the Orion product is as good as it gets. They are probably better than the only Canadian alternative, the New Flyer. (BTW, 7300s are New Flyer D40LFs, and 7400-8099 are the original Orion VIIs, while 1000-1149 are their hybrid counterparts, and 1200-1639 are the next-gen hybrids with different rear seating layout).


  15. Almost any engine will produce more pollution when the engine is cast at the foundry then it will produce in its entire running lifetime. Since learning this environmental information I think it would be better to use a bus that will last longer then having to buy a New bus every few years that creates much pollution to manufacture.


  16. Jonathan, you are quite correct that the GM Diesels have reached the end of their useful life – or actually reached the end some time ago and the combination of their excellent quality and the TTC’s superior maintenance has allowed them to perform “above and beyond” expectations.

    My concern however remains. We seem to have bet the future of bus transport on a fleet that is made up almost entirely of buses of suspect quality. Previously, various “mistakes” have been retired from service significantly prior to their expected expiry date. What do we do if the entire new fleet starts to look “no longer viable” in the relatively recent future. Will governments step up to the plate with additional hundreds of millions to replace the buses they have mandated.

    This whole problem was caused by government mandates that made it very difficult for the TTC to replace its fleet on a regular gradual basis. For a long time there was a real restriction on the availability of suitable replacement buses. In desperation, the TTC kept rebuilding the worn out GMs. Now, instead of gradual replacement, we see the backbone of the fleet being replaced all at once.

    The same phenomenon can be seen with the CLRVs. They have been allowed to age beyond their optimum life and none have been rebuilt. No new streetcars have been purchased, and now we see service gaps because there are not enough CLRVs available for use.

    If the Orions are “as good as it gets” in Canada, maybe our governments should not be insisting that we “protect” a second rate Canadian industry. I don’t believe that they accept “second best” in Europe.


  17. I’m surprised at the comments that electric vehicles do not cause any pollution. From where do we get our power? Coal, and Nuclear energy mostly – those are not free from pollution. Not to mention that we only end up adding to the peak electric demand.

    Steve: Do you prefer the hot air emanating from various political parties?


  18. It was mentioned in the second post but not commented on – What about electric trolley buses?

    ETBs are nearly silent, strong and reliable enough for the hills of San Francisco, and mechanically much simpler. Now I know I don’t need to convince you Steve, but what ever became of this option here? Isn’t this the ‘greenest’ bus of all? Are our governments not interested in funding them because Canadian manufacturers aren’t interested in producing them? I realise it doesn’t help that we threw away much of the infrastructure.

    Since there are ‘dual-mode’ diesel/trolley powered buses already, would it not be a very simple step forward to make a dual-mode diesel-hybrid with a direct trolley-fed mode? I know the problem already – limited market.


  19. Nick J Boragina wrote, “From where do we get our power? Coal, and Nuclear energy mostly – those are not free from pollution.”

    While these are far from pollution free, as a source of motive power they have the same advantage as hybrid vehicles: fuel is burned in the optimal operating range that extracts the most energy with the least pollutants. Added to this, is the “benefit” of not distributing the pollutants with the vehicle (I used quotes as those near the power plant might disagree that this is a benefit, but it is easier to control the pollutants from a fixed stack than a roaming tailpipe). There is also the benefit that some of the power on the grid can come from non-polluting sources such as hydro-electric and wind.

    On the subject of bio-fuels and their effect on food supplies: I heard a story over the weekend about a new partnership between ConocoPhillips and Tyson Foods to use waste animal fat to produce bio-diesel (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18136194/).


  20. The only point I would make in reference to the good points Michael Greason is that the TTC is not like a private car buyer who relies on the dealer to sell him a car fit for the road. The TTC does have the resources to perform inspections on vehicles before acceptance, not least because TTC carries out some of its own warranty work so should know what a properly built vehicle looks like. If vehicles sporting shoddy workmanship are in service then one has to ask why the TTC personnel who took delivery released it to service.

    As I have mentioned previously, dependence on a single manufacturer who may, or may not, produce suitable vehicles is crucial not just to discussion of TTC buses but Transit City too.


  21. Ah, the old “trolley buses aren’t clean because the power used to run them isn’t clean” argument. That may be true, but the power plant is probably going to sell that power to someone else if it’s not used for transit vehicles, so is there really an increase in output? This could be debated for pages. As far as street-level pollution goes, trolleybuses themselves are zero-emission vehicles, and the current New Flyer/Kiepe model has the flexibility of extensive off-wire operation. I’d take that any day over the streams of blue smoke belching out of many of the TTC’s diesel buses, including a large number of the Orion VIIs.

    If there was a good case to leverage the substation power infrastructure that will be used for Transit City to also support a trolleybus network that would help further reduce reliance on any diesel-powered buses. What we do want is good-quality vehicles with a reasonable expectation of lasting for their “stated” service life, whether they be new LRVs, buses or trolleybuses. We’ve been hosed too many times with expensive lemons in the last twenty years.

    Steve: Yes, the important factor in this discussion is infrastructure. One new TB line off into the wilderness will cost a lot to built whereas a network, with electrical infrastructure shared with Transit City would bring the cost down. Routes like Bathurst, Dufferin and Keele are prime candidates.


  22. Diesel/gasoline = pollution in Toronto

    Electric = pollution at Nanticoke and glowing people/fish with two heads in Darlington, Pickering and Bruce (and a wee bit of gas exhaust in the Portlands).

    Obviously, as a Torontonian I prefer electric, not sure how the other people feel 🙂


  23. My Dad and I have often wondered why not change the buses from the standard fuel version to one that ran on a similar mode to the street cars with a line that can extend and retract as the bus moves in and out of traffic.

    Causes less havoc first of all in areas where there is a denser traffic issue, and removes the fuel problem once and for all.

    Steve: We used to have electric buses that drew their power from overhead wires, but these were replaced by buses powered with natural gas in an ill-considered move almost 20 years ago.

    Two wires are required for buses for the power and ground side of the circuit. On the streetcar and subway network, the rails provide the ground connection.

    Conversion of a bus route to electric operation involves the cost of setting up the overhead distribution system and this means that only heavy routes are candidates. Modern trolley buses such as those used in Vancouver can run off wire on batteries to get around accidents and construction. The tradeoff comes in the extra cost of the infrastructure versus savings in power cost.

    Electric buses have a considerable cost premium over diesel buses, but with the advent of hybrid buses, this split should drop. The real question is whether it makes more sense for buses to carry their power supply on board (with a diesel generator) or to draw power from overhead wires.


  24. The diesel fuel price locked-in debate is similar to the natural gas price locked-in question home owners have. Price of natural gas has gone up 20% effective July 1st. I locked-in for 5 years at 37¢ m3 before it went up to 39¢. But, always in the back of my mind, I wonder what if the price goes down? On the other hand, what if the price goes up during that 5 year period?

    The TTC is having the same problem with its diesel fuel. What will be the price if they lock it in? Will the price continue to go up? Has the price reached the peak, and about to go down? Should they consult with people like Dan McTeague? Or, should they just throw the dart and see where it lands?


  25. This entire debate about biofuels and the price of diesel fuel has me wondering just what the hell is going on in the minds of those running Edmonton’s transit system. With all the talk of global climate change and green transit initiatives not too mention the energy price situation I understand that the decision has been made to abandon their trolley bus network. They seem to think that blind, deaf and stupid is the only way to base such an obviously warped decision.


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