Solar-powered electric buses ‒ a UK first

Unlike conventional buses, the new Big Lemon Bus project uses an innovative combination of three renewable technologies to generate clean energy during the day, store it in a battery and then charge up the new solar buses overnight
With the UK capital struggling to get commuters to work on time following strike action by tube and train drivers this week, JAN GOODEY reports on a project that will bring the first solar-powered electric buses to the public in the Spring
This project represents the holy grail of ‘sustainable' with zero-emissions buses powered by renewable energy and funded by members of the community

Tom Druitt, managing director of Big Lemon Buses is ecstatic about the delivery of his solar panels which will power a new trio of electric buses - a first in the UK.

"Yes, definitely! We've got the panels to power the buses - re-used panels off a nursing home! It's very exciting and we're looking forward to seeing how it'll work out and sharing that knowledge so everyone [in the public transport field] can do it."

The 120 solar panels, generating enough electricity to boil 1.8 million kettles, will cover the roof of The Big Lemon's bus depot near the seafront in Whitehawk, Brighton from where it runs its public bus service as well as private hires and festival/campaign runs.

The community interest company (CIC), which featured in the Ecologist magazine back in October 2008, is a pioneering social enterprise running all its vehicles on recycled waste cooking oil from local restaurants.

Since 2007 it estimates that over half a million tonnes of waste cooking oil has been used and that the project has saved over 900 tonnes of carbon dioxide from going up in smoke.

The company won last year's Environmental Social Enterprise of the Year award at the UK Social Enterprise Awards in London's, The Grand Connaught Rooms - a competition recognises excellence and outstanding achievements by businesses that reinvest their profits for good, benefitting people and planet.

As well being recognised for its use of recycled cooking oil in the buses, The Big Lemon caught the judges' eyes for the progress made in pursuing the zero-emissions electric buses project powered by renewable energy.

This latest installation will begin in the New Year. Using an innovative combination of three renewable technologies, the project will generate clean energy during the day, store it in a battery and then charge up the solar buses overnight. The battery is sized to charge a day's worth of travel for the three solar vehicles - 140 miles.

All being well, the first such bus will be going into service in the spring of 2017 on The Big Lemon's 52 route between Woodingdean and Brighton, taking in some of Brighton and Hove's most polluted hotspots which currently breach European pollution regulations.

The city central North Street (B2066) is one of the busiest routes in the UK with nearly all (97%) of the city's bus routes passing through this thoroughfare. North Street to Western Road has the highest concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NOx) in Sussex and currently exceeds the legal limits for these emissions.

On Western Road 66% of NOx comes from buses (Brighton and Hove Bus and Coach company runs the majority of these), 10% from cars, 7% from taxis and 17% from other vehicles including vans and lorries

Brighton & Hove City Council's latest Air Quality Action Plan prioritises improvements in roadside nitrogen dioxide (NOx) levels and the council welcomes initiatives to reduce NOx emissions from buses.

This project represents the holy grail of ‘sustainable' with zero-emissions buses powered by renewable energy and funded by members of the community

A council spokesperson said: "We are working towards achieving standards... set out in the Air Quality Strategy for England. Nitrogen dioxide concentrations continue to exceed EU and English standards within several metres of certain roads; a common problem for many local authorities in England and Wales."

Although The Big Lemon buses use sustainably sourced fuel from waste cooking oils, the current fleet of biodiesel vehicles produce relatively high levels of NOx. Replacing these buses with electric vehicles would reduce the NOx emissions (as well as particulate matter, and CO2) to zero.

The Solar Bus project was one of 199 different applications to the regional M&S Energy Award scheme. Working alongside Brighton Energy Co-op, The Big Lemon won the prize worth £12,500: half the money they needed to keep the project going. £13,325 came through crowd-funding donations making £28,798 in total.

Will Cottrell, founder and Chair of  Brighton Energy Coop said: "We started off with just two organisations and an idea and now have a whole community of people and a number of local businesses [incl. Infinity Foods and Mooncup] supporting it.

"It's great to be working on this. Brighton Energy Co-op has a lot of exciting projects on the go, but I have to say none have involved covering the roof of a bus depot to power the buses that are housed there!

"This is the first project of its kind in the UK - a very exciting time for us and a project that puts Brighton & Hove at the forefront of renewable energy and transport in the UK."

What stops this latest departure being rolled out nationally, is cost. The technology is still in its early stages and so it costs twice as much for an electric bus as it would for a diesel: £250,000.

Earlier this year the company raised £250,000 in just a few weeks through a bond issue which is how they've been able to invest in the project and identify three buses to convert, with the conversion on one of them already underway. To finish the job they need another £225,000 which they are aiming to get through a share issue.

If you would like to invest in The Big Lemon contact the company at

To see the data on how much CO2 etc the buses will save go to this interactive data visualisation: //








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