By John Bartlett
SANTIAGO- Electric and diesel buses pass in turn along one of the main avenues in Chile's capital Santiago, sweeping past the national football stadium and up towards the Andean mountains.
The differences are stark. Bright red electric buses glide serenely by, while their old diesel-powered, smoke-belching counterparts grind to a halt with a thunderous clatter.
"I use the new electric buses a lot. They're much quieter," said 26-year-old university student Camilo Miranda. "People often overlook noise pollution in a city where air quality has always been the main concern."
Santiago, a city of 5.6 million people, has positioned itself as a global leader in the use of electric buses, as the South American nation pushes forward with ambitious plans to adopt cleaner energy and cut emissions from public transport.
With 386 electric buses, accounting for 6% of the city's fleet, Santiago has by far the largest fleet outside of global front-runner China, according to the World Resources Institute, a U.S.-based think-tank.
The first 100 electric buses bought from China hit the Chilean capital's streets just over a year ago, and the government plans to introduce them in other cities, although it has not said where.
Worldwide, cities account for about three-quarters of carbon emissions and consume more than two-thirds of energy, meaning their success or failure in cutting emissions will have a big impact on whether global warming stays within agreed limits.
Chile will be keen to highlight Santiago's use of electric buses when the city hosts this year's U.N. climate conference (COP25) in December.
In June, the government unveiled a more ambitious climate action plan that included targets to shut all coal power plants by 2040 and become a carbon-neutral economy by 2050, in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement to curb global warming.
In Santiago, it is also hoped the zero-emission buses can help the battle to improve poor air quality, which sees a dense smog settle over the city on most cold winter days.
"Ahead of the COP25, we want to reinforce the image of Chile as a country that has mobilised new public transport technologies with a focus on clean solutions," Chile's Transport Minister Gloria Hutt told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Our aim is to have all public transport in Chile electric-powered by the year 2040," she said.
She added that the government's focus was on expanding the use of electric energy in public transport, with no subsidies or tax breaks in the pipeline to promote the use of electric cars.
CHEAPER TO RUN
The running cost per kilometre of Santiago's Chinese-made electric buses is around 70 pesos ($0.10), a 230-peso decrease on the rate for a diesel vehicle.
But the cost of a journey to the passenger remains the same.
The electric buses have a range of around 250 km (155 miles), meaning they can make three or four return journeys on city routes without needing to recharge at the terminal.
They also have motion chargers which means they can top up while going downhill.
The electric buses are purchased by the Chilean state and then leased to local private operators including MetBus.
"There's been an important commitment to electro-mobility in Chile, and (the technology) is here to stay," said Karla Zapata, director of Enel X Chile, the Italian energy subsidiary that provides power for the bus network.
There are already 60 charging points for electric cars across the capital, but they are not yet widely used due to a lack of government incentives and regulation, Zapata said.
Social attitudes need to change and prices must fall for Chileans to embrace a shift to electric-powered cars, she said.
"What we need to work on is motivating people to change from diesel to electric cars," Zapata said.
The company hopes that slower-speed charging units could soon be installed in homes, medium-capacity chargers at workplaces, and fast-charging stations at motorway services and outside restaurants, she added.
The use of electric energy is also picking up speed in Santiago's metro network, Latin America's second largest, which will reach 215 km with two new lines opening by 2027.
The two newest routes are electric-powered and driverless.
About 60% of the electricity the metro consumes is covered by renewable production from wind power and a solar plant north of Santiago, El Pelícano, equipped with 250,000 panels.
Juan Villalobos, who drove diesel buses for three decades before switching to the electric models less than a year ago, said residents value and take pride in the new buses.
"You hear no noise when you're driving - it's like a ghost sliding through the streets. People care for them much better too. There's far more respect for the buses and fewer problems with the passengers," Villalobos said.
"People even let the old buses pass by so that they can ride the new ones," the veteran driver noted.