Ecosystem & Growth

Why transforming transportation to net-zero is an energy transition

An interview with Ralf Nielsen, Director of Enterprise Sustainability at TransLink

Ralf Nielsen has served as Director of Enterprise Sustainability at TransLink since 2021, leading a team of three to catalyze new practices and policies, develop new strategies, and drive innovation within and across the organization.

The Enterprise Sustainability team is a strong advocate for sustainability, decarbonization, and other economic and social priorities.

We caught up with Ralf to get a big-picture view of TransLink’s investment objectives, and to learn about Project Greenlight from an organization pursuing innovation and sustainability writ large within the region, the province, or even North America.

What are the greatest challenge areas for TransLink?

TransLink provides a means for people to get back and forth and move around the region – to get to their jobs, destinations, family and nature. But to be a strong contributor to social and environmental outcomes in the region, TransLink must provide transit that’s reliable, comes on time, is effective, is comfortable, is accessible, is affordable – and meets the shifting demand for services.

We’re constantly challenged to navigate the balance between fiscal responsibility and sustainability and social or economic responsibility. We can see that in all the parts of the work we do, whether that’s the policy and planning group or the engineering department, whether it’s bus or rail.

We have limited funding, so we need to be prudent on where we spend our money to maximize our return to customers, employees, and region.

Why is TransLink involved with Project Greenlight?

[Project Greenlight] is a source of potential solutions for our energy and operational transition as we get to net zero. We want to see innovation that makes for a good customer experience.

Firstly, transportation is a very mature industry. This sector has typically relied on sets of foundational technologies for decades – think of diesel propulsion technologies for buses. Certain things are now changing – not least our climate goals – and that requires a new way of thinking that balances innovation with feasibility. It’s a challenging part for an organization and sector that’s shifting from the foundational technologies to zero-emissions. It’s a shift that covers so many dimensions – technology, operations, finance, service, and people – and one we have never seen before.

Secondly, TransLink’s public transportation system services 400,000, 500,000 people on any given day. We’re looking at how to improve our own operations and processes when it comes to fleets, repairs, and operations. We also want to make different modes of transportation – walking, cycling, e-mobility – more attractive to people for short trips, and transit desirable for those long trips across the region.

TransLink is foremost among the region’s critical builders of infrastructure, tasked with how to move people, goods – and now, ideas. Could you share some of TransLink’s biggest capital investment and strategic goals for the region, and what areas Project Greenlight innovators should focus on when pitching ideas?

We’re always interested in solutions that can help us with improving the contributions of our services and infrastructure in the region.

At the front end, or whom TransLink serves, we’re not just providers of bus and rail services. Most people don’t know that we own and operate six bridges in the region. We provide funding for major road networks in the Metro Vancouver region, build out cycling and walking infrastructure, and work to manage transportation demand. An example is programs with local schools to do “walking school buses,” or our real estate development work to bring more housing to the region.

On our back end, or solutions that help with operational efficiency, one of the critical themes is decarbonization. We have 245 facilities, over 2,000 vehicles, and more than 100 kilometers of SkyTrain line in the region. And we’ve committed to making the transition to net zero over the next 25 years, beginning with a goal of zero tailpipe emissions by 2040.

Could you provide some examples of solutions areas that could aid TransLink in getting to net zero?

At its heart, this is an energy transition. We face a lot of critical challenges, including decarbonizing our existing fleet. There will be a transition phase – where renewable fuels are brought in to rapidly decarbonize our existing fleet assets – while we replace end-of-life assets with zero emissions.

The energy transition is a diverse one: it could require anything from battery electric buses, automation, “in-motion charged” electric trolleys, hydrogen fuel cell electric buses, renewable fuels, and energy charging and storage solutions. Battery electric bus technology is core. But battery electric buses need charging solutions, charge and energy management software, new O&M practices for maintaining electric traction platorm, manage batteries and end-of-life for the buses. That requires sourcing and building a lot of infrastructure.

Our recent analysis shows battery electric buses can be one-to-one replacements for diesel buses for more than half of routes. But the balance of our routes is very “energy intensive” meaning, we have to look at hydrogen fuel cells, or high-speed electric trolleys for those routes that are hard to decarbonize, and the technological solutions are not yet mature enough to serve our needs.

Some of the biggest criticisms about transitioning to battery electric buses relate to their decommissioning; do you have any comment on the end of life for those buses?

Of course: we want to make sure we’re making whole-lifecycle decisions. Transit authorities are the first out of the gate in terms of electrification in heavy-duty vehicles. I think there’s a role for transit authorities to be more involved in this area. At end-of-life, all our buses are recycled locally to capture and separate wastes, recycle materials and dispose of hazardous chemicals. We also do mid-life engine rebuilding.

There may be future opportunities to downcycle or repurpose mid-life batteries into energy storage solutions. However, the local industry may need a bit more maturation and policy support before it can take on this sort of volume. We still need stronger direction from regulatory bodies on product takeback or upcycling requirements for light-duty vehicle batteries, let alone heavy-duty vehicle batteries. There’s interest from policy makers, but I estimate we’re at least two years away from seeing one tabled.

What are some of TransLink’s more ambitious or challenging areas that you’re pondering right now?

It’s one of operational efficiency. This is an energy transition, and as utility companies work to add more capacity, we also have a responsibility to consider how we can manage demand and fully utilize the energy assets and connections we already have in place.

Imagine our fully electric Skytrain and Canada lines: although that infrastructure has been built for running the SkyTrain, there could be ways to further utilize what exists there. We capture a lot of energy related to regenerative braking when a train is pulling into a station, but on off-peak times, you don’t get that kind of balancing and repurposing.

There’s a whole bunch of electricity we use that we just burn off, and we would be open to solutions on how to capture that. The electricity we could capture from those processes is worth a lot of money and we have a responsibility to look at energy as a system – as a regional system.

You just closed your call for innovation! What is the progress for the call for innovation? What sort of solutions have you been most excited by?

I’ve only just seen a few submissions so I can’t really comment, but we’re really quite pleased with the diversity of solutions to date. We want to build partnerships and relationships with a wide range of company types and sizes.

Anything else you’d like to share?

We’re working to make it easier for smaller companies to do business with TransLink. It’s all well enough to do pilot demonstrations, but it’s also in our sustainable procurement strategy to make it easier to do business with us in general. That’s especially the case with minority, women-owned, Indigenous-owned and operated businesses, and the LGBTQ2S+ community.

We must be nimble and quick. At least from a climate perspective, we’re kind of running out of time: 2030 is only six years away! Transportation itself is quite risk averse, and a generally fiscally conservative community with monumental tasks ahead of us. We have a fiduciary responsibility to continue and advance our own practices. We have this great new mobility initiative; we have these calls for innovation. So, we need to keep pushing an innovation mindset: test, fail fast, and move on.

Do you have an energy-transition solution?

Review TransLink's open call for services.

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