Proterra’s Fast-Charging Electric Bus Hits the Road

EcoRide Bus

Proterra Inc., based in Golden, Colo., has just hit a critical milestone in the life of an entrepreneurial green bus maker: the first deployment of its all-electric model for everyday service by a major public transit agency. Founded in 2004, Proterra is announcing this morning that Foothill Transit, which serves eastern Los Angeles County, has purchased three Proterra EcoRide BE-35 electric buses, as well as two fast-charging stations, and signed on for an option to buy nine more of the model if all goes well in an initial trial period.

Formerly called Mobile Energy Solutions, Proterra makes drive components and energy storage systems for electric and hybrid buses, delivery vans and other commercial models, as well as the vehicles themselves. The BE-35 bus uses an electric propulsion system from UQM Technologies, and it has a lightweight composite body. Proterra has designed the vehicle to operate for up to three hours and juice up within 10 minutes at inductive fast-charging stations installed along the bus route.

Other Proterra models built with fuel cell range-extenders have been deployed in Burbank, Calif.; Austin, Tex. and Columbia, S.C. But when Foothill fires up the trio of EcoRide buses to start running routes this Friday, it will be a first for the 68-passenger, 35-foot-long battery electric model. This is also the first deployment of Proterra’s fast-charge services.

The buses in Foothill’s fleet will also be racking up more miles annually than Proterra’s previous deployments, traveling an estimated 60,000 miles per year, compared to about 30,000 miles and 50,000 miles per year in Burbank and Columbia, respectively, said Proterra CEO Jeff Granato. That could produce a virtual goldmine of data for Proterra, which plans to kick off an automated data collection system this week. According to Granato, the company and its customers will be able to monitor key components, driver behavior and the performance of the vehicle by way of a new web tool.

According to Granato, Foothill intends to replace a full line of diesel buses with the EcoRide. In fact, Foothill is such a “strong believer” in battery electric bus technology, and Proterra’s solution in particular, he said, that the agency has gone to the trouble of coming up with its own name for the bus (“Ecoliner”) and is paying to trademark it.

According to Marc Gottschalk, Proterra’s business development chief (and co-founder of the Cleantech Open), Foothill wants to set an example for the state and the California Air Resources Board, whose Zero Emission Bus (Zbus) regulation requires buses with zero tailpipe emissions to make up at least 15 percent of large California agencies’ annual bus orders starting in 2012. With 314 buses currently in operation, Foothill Transit is one Los Angeles County’s largest municipal public transportation providers, according to the California Energy Commission, or CEC, and the “first transit entity in California to commit to using 35-foot composite body electric transit buses for everyday service.”

Proterra has already gotten some help from Sacramento: Foothill bought the Ecoliner buses with funds from the CEC’s Alternative and Renewable Fuel and Vehicle Transportation program. According to a recent notice from the CEC, it will provide $200,000 to help Foothill install a pair of “‘halo’ inductive charging systems that can recharge the bus batteries from 10 percent to 95 percent charge in ten minutes or less,” while another $3.2 million will come from “project participants.”

In the months ahead, Proterra hopes to see its business boosted, indirectly, by federal funds. Granato said as many as 15 transit agencies have requested federal funds to buy Proterra buses in the “last couple months.”

Answers to those requests should start coming in this fall, according to Granato. Next year, Proterra aims to sell around 80-100 buses, he said, and as many as 250 buses the following year. The company has moved all its production operations from Colorado to a plant in Greenville, S.C., where four buses are currently in the works.

When it comes to financing, Proterra has raised $20 million so far, and is not actively seeking additional funds at this point, said Granato. While the company doesn’t have any pending requests for government funds, he said it’s “always open” to loan guarantees and programs that could accelerate Proterra’s growth.

For the time being, the company is looking ahead to start rigorous durability testing in Altoona, Penn., where the goal is to run a bus through its 12-year life cycle in just 4-6 months, said Granato, and produce reports that transit agencies and would-be buyers can then use to support their funding requests. “Nobody passes,” Granato explained. “The whole point is to break a bus.”

Despite raising funds in June, making these latest deliveries to Foothill and looking ahead to the Altoona testing, however, Proterra finds itself in somewhat of a holding pattern due to what Granato described as a “diversion between the desire of transit agencies to have zero emission buses,” and the amount of funding that’s available at the local, state and federal level.

In the near term, Granato said, foreign markets may be “better economically,” for Proterra. If passage of a U.S. surface transportation bill is “delayed much further,” he said, it would hurt Proterra’s business and momentum, although he remains optimistic. “We’re ready now at the starting blocks,” he said, “and the gun is about to sound.”

Images courtesy of Proterra

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