New electric vehicles jolt Penn toward sustainability goals

The University has purchased its first passenger electric vehicles, with four EV vans added to the fleet during Climate Week.

A van driving between two cars
An electric Penn Transit shuttle heading west on Walnut Street.

Ahead of schedule, Penn Transit Services has procured and launched its first-ever fleet of passenger vans that run entirely on electric-charged batteries. This will save a total of 52 metric tons of carbon emissions every year, which, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, equates to growing 893 tree saplings for 10 years.

Michael Bernhardt is director of Penn Transit Services, which provides free transportation within specific service boundaries to all PennCard holders. He says that a creative solution involving retrofitting Ford e-Transit cargo vans—which are not yet widely available as passenger vans—allowed them to find a quick and cost-effective way to introduce four new electric vehicles to the Penn Transit fleet. Passenger vehicles can be expensive and aren’t always big enough for use in the fleet, Bernhardt says, so purchasing an electric cargo van and outfitting it with seats, windows, and batteries proved to be an innovative alternative. This customization also allowed them to keep the 10-year warranty intact.

That means that four of the 50 total vehicles in Penn Transit’s fleet are now electric, with an intention to expand as the University continues to invest in equipment like electric chargers. 

“Realistically, as rapidly as the market is changing, even if you have the ability to acquire more vehicles you probably don’t want to start with half your fleet [as electric], because you need to ensure the infrastructure is in place to support their needs,” Bernhardt says. “You have to make sure the electric grids can take the power drain, and that the shuttles can be repaired, as their maintenance differs than the requirements of vehicles serviced by traditional mechanics.”

Still, he calls the purchase a “huge step forward” in supporting the Climate and Sustainability Action Plan, which established Penn’s climate goals through 2024. The University also recently announced that it will purchase carbon offsets specifically related to air travel emissions; air travel accounts for 5-10% of campus carbon emissions.

The electric vans were first put in operation during Penn’s third-annual Climate Week, hosted Oct. 10-14. They are expected to individually provide a 60% savings in maintenance costs and a 70% savings in fuel.

As Penn Transit looks to expand its implementation of electric vehicles (EV), four Level 2 EV chargers were recently installed to be able to accommodate faster charging than the Level 1 charges that come standard with the vehicle. Eventually, the department aspires to purchase Level 3 chargers that can accommodate large-sized buses. Currently, the Level 2 chargers allow the transit system to run 12 to 15 vehicles with a 24-hour presence on a single charge. 

Looking ahead, Bernhardt says Penn Transit is working to secure federal and Commonwealth grants as a means of funding an expanded fleet. He’s also carefully monitoring the available funding opportunities that might be opened up by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the clean energy incentives written in the Inflation Reduction Act. 

The four electric vehicles currently run as FMC Shuttle passenger vans. The interiors of the vans, he says, are mostly identical to other Penn shuttles. Aside from the back of each vehicle prominently marked as running on “100% Electric Power,” the only noticeable difference from the rest of the fleet is how quiet they are.

“The addition of our first electric vehicles to Penn Transit’s fleet heralds a new era in our ongoing commitment to sustainability,” says Division of Business Services Vice President Marie Witt. “It comes at a time when Penn Transit reached record ridership in FY2022, transporting over 325,000 passengers of which almost 80% of our riders use Penn shuttles to travel to, from, and around campus.”

The vehicles are expected to have a life cycle of 10 to 12 years, which is similar to non-electric vehicles in the fleet, and are anticipated to log 150,000 to 200,000 miles as they shuttle Penn community members to their destinations.