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Breaking down CyRide’s role in lowering city emissions

Nick Nelson

This story is part of a series that examines the progress, impact and cost of the “action steps” and “big moves” outlined in the Ames Climate Action Plan.

With its recent purchase of five additional battery electric buses, CyRide has continued to steadily strengthen its foothold in sustainable transportation.

Many of CyRide’s latest projects and initiatives, most notably its integration of zero-emissions electric buses, contribute to the “six big moves” outlined in the Ames Climate Action Plan. This includes the moves to “reduce vehicle emissions” and “increase active transportation and transit use.” 

The goal of the Ames Climate Action Plan is to achieve a 70% reduction in emission levels from 2018 to 2030. This is a revision of the initial goal, which was to have an 83% reduction by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2050.

Here’s a breakdown of the dollar price of CyRide’s switch to electric and its potential impact on lowering carbon emissions in Ames.



CyRide purchased five battery electric buses in November 2023, which will join the initial two electric buses unveiled in spring 2023.

CyRide’s long-term goal is to equip its fleet with 17 electric buses. This number is based on a system-wide study that determined the number of electric buses CyRide could implement and support with its current resources and present-day technology. 

There is no specific timeline for when CyRide will reach its goal of 17 electric buses, as the timing will depend on funding. The five new electric buses, which were purchased in November 2023, will be put into service in 2026. 


Understanding what “zero emissions” actually means

The electric CyRide buses, along with other pure electric vehicles, are labeled as zero emissions because they have no tailpipe and do not emit carbon dioxide while running. However, a common misconception about electric vehicles is that this means they are a complete zero emissions solution. 

While electric vehicles themselves do not emit carbon dioxide, the chargers that power them may still contribute to emission levels, depending on where the electricity comes from. 

Renewable wind energy provides 62% of the energy Iowa generates, which is the highest share of any U.S. state, while coal provides 24%, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration

However, Iowa receives its energy from the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO), which operates an overall grid that provides power to Iowa and 14 other states. James McCalley, an Iowa State professor who teaches classes on electric power systems, compared the electricity Iowa receives from MISO to water in a swimming pool. 

“If you had 15 parts of a swimming pool, you could stand here or here, but the water that surrounds you doesn’t come from one place,” McCalley said. “It’s everybody’s water. You really can’t designate a part of the swimming pool as being, ‘Here’s the shallow water, and here’s the deep end water.’”

Though more than 60% of Iowa’s electricity comes from renewable wind power, this amount is then added to MISO’s overall electric grid. As a result, the extent of emission reduction benefits from electric vehicles charged in Ames is dependent on both local and regional sustainability actions and policies. 

“In general, there are still emission reduction benefits for using electric vehicles,” said Jing Dong-O’Brien, an Iowa State professor who teaches classes on transportation engineering. “But the benefit could just be very large if most of the electricity is from renewable sources, or the benefit could be very minimal if it’s mostly coming from the coal fire plants.” 

Dong-O’Brien said that either way, having electric vehicles can be beneficial for populated areas because it allows its users a little more control over where the emissions are being released. 

“If the vehicle is driving in a populated area and there are people around the bus on campus, there is a benefit of not emitting around them,” Dong-O’Brien said. “Even if the electricity partially comes from a coal plant, it’s at least not as harmful to nearby people.”


Comparing diesel to electric

James Rendall, assistant director for fleet and facilities at CyRide, said they do not want to make strong comparisons between the performances of CyRide’s diesel and electric buses until the electric buses have had an opportunity to operate within a full year’s cycle of weather.

“Environmental conditions impact electric vehicles at such a greater rate than the diesel engines,” Rendall said. “The diesel engines don’t really care what temperature it is outside until it gets really cold.” 

The Center for Transportation and the Environment has technology on electric buses to monitor their performance. Using this technology, they will release a report this fall. Christine Crippen, CyRide’s assistant director for operations, said this report will provide a clearer picture of how the electric buses are running in comparison to the diesel buses, including data on the cost of charging the electric buses. 

Regarding upfront costs, the electric buses are currently more expensive than the diesel buses. 

Rendall said CyRide’s first two electric buses, which entered service in July 2023, cost around $860,000 each. When they placed a second order in November for five additional electric buses, the price rose to approximately $1.2 million each. 

Meanwhile, the diesel-run buses currently cost around $550,000 to $600,000 each, according to Rendall.

Rendall said the price of electric buses increased between CyRide’s first and second purchase because of general trends with supply chain issues and inflation. 

“However, the prices were trending downward for several years until the COVID-19 pandemic hit,” Rendall said.


Exploring additional ways to contribute

As part of its push for lower emissions, CyRide will begin a new project this summer, which will involve outfitting five of its buses with renewable fuel.

Crippen said they think this will be a good option since a lot of renewable fuels are made in Iowa, and there are many steps with infrastructure and the power grid that will need to happen before CyRide can consider going fully electric. 

“Technology is constantly changing, not just in the electric world, but just everybody’s trying to move towards a more efficient method of transportation,” Rendall said.

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  • B

    Bob Bourne | May 3, 2024 at 9:24 am

    Nice report and nice research asking ISU people who are knowledgeable about energy and efficiency. Another research piece would be on CyRide versus auto trips. If XX number of people made a trip on CyRide, no additional bus pollution (assuming space available) and the car pollution would not be pumped into the air. If a bus is needed, compare pollution from a bus with XX passengers compared to lots of cars to carry the same number of people. I know ISU has engineers that can dig out that information. Just don’t know what the XX number is.
    ISU students already save tons of air pollution every day with the very high utilization of CyRide, one of the most productive bus systems in the U.S. But, there is always room for more people.

  • J

    Jake from the Cornbelt | May 1, 2024 at 8:44 am

    Excellent, well-balanced piece. Now do a piece on the cost-benefit of renewable biofuels. While renewable, that energy source is not really a clean or efficient alternative to gasoline, nor is it truly renewable b/c of its dependence on the dwindling/fluctuating availability of water. Compare the overall costs and benefits of biofuels to that of electric. That would further draw the picture you’ve begun to sketch here.

    Keep up the good work! Here’s hoping the omnipresence of agribusiness and our agri-university that’s somewhat beholden to said agribusiness will not discourage you from further investigating the energy sector.