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Proterra CEO: Electric buses are close to inevitable

The economic case for electric transit buses has become a no-brainer, Proterra CEO Ryan Popple told Bloomberg in a recent interview. The energy cost of a typical e-bus is about 20 cents per mile, compared to about 75 cents per mile for diesel. The up-front costs for e-buses are substantially higher, but Proterra recently introduced a battery-leasing model to mitigate this.

The transition to electric buses is “close to inevitable at
this point,” Popple told Bloomberg. “Some mainstream middle American cities are
going all-electric. The longer you run diesel, the more career risk you’re
taking. Because ultimately, someone could come in and say, ‘Wait, you wasted
$40 million of taxpayer money because you thought it was hard to figure out how
to transition to EV?’”

While some Chinese cities are already well
on the way to going all-electric
, cities in the US and Europe are moving slowly
to replace their fleets. “Transit agencies churn or turn over one-twelfth of
their fleet each year,” said Popple. “So even if cities started going electric
now, it means their communities are still going to be breathing diesel for 12

Interestingly, many of the electric buses have been showing
up in smaller cities such as Park
City, Utah
(and Charged’s home
city of St
Petersburg, Florida
, which recently deployed two BYD e-buses), while giant
metros like New
and San
are behind the curve.

“Most of the early adopters have been smaller, more agile
cities,” says Popple. “You see San Jose before San Francisco. You see Park City
before Salt Lake City. But some large cities have culturally acted like early
adopters, including Los
, Seattle
and Dallas. Major cities’ requirements on a product basis are tougher. New York
is a great example of that. It probably has the toughest structural testing
requirements of any fleet. It’s one of the reasons why, even on the diesel bus
side, there are very few qualified vendors that can sell anything to New York.”

The lower operating and maintenance costs of electric buses are
hard to argue with, but too often e-bus vendors don’t even get a chance to make
their pitches to transit agencies. “Diesel bus companies don’t really sell
anything,” says Popple. “Procurements are on autopilot. Years ago, they put in
place a contract and built a customer relationship. It’s not that the diesel
companies are good at marketing, it’s just everyone assumes that when the
procurement comes up, they’re just going to carbon-copy the last version of
that contract and hand it to the vendor.

“The diesel bus guy doesn’t come in and give a compelling
pitch on why black smoke coming out of the bus is good. Fossil fuel maintains
its market share by people not paying attention. If you knew that New York City
was about to buy 500 diesel buses and run them in your neighborhood, you’d go
to a meeting and you’d make a public statement: ‘This is a really dumb idea and
I’d prefer that my kids not breathe diesel.’ But it tends to happen without
anybody paying attention.”

Electric buses are also starting to make inroads in the
nation’s school bus fleet, which makes up the largest mass transportation
system in the nation (in 2013, there were 480,000
yellow school buses on US roads
, 2.5 times as many vehicles as transit
buses, motor coaches, commercial airplanes and passenger rail cars combined).

Last October, Daimler subsidiary Thomas Built Buses unveiled
new electric school bus
featuring a Proterra battery system.

In June, a group of Democratic US Senators, including presidential
candidates Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders, introduced legislation
to accelerate the electrification of the US school bus fleet. The Clean
School Bus Act
would provide $1 billion over five years to fund DOE grants for
electric school buses and charging infrastructure, giving priority to fleets
that serve lower-income students.

“We know that students are breathing polluted air on their
way to school, and we know that burden falls disproportionately on low-income
students and students of color,” said Harris. “Electrifying the nation’s school
bus fleet will clean the air our students breathe and help fight the climate
crisis that threatens their futures.”

“Electric vehicles are already reducing emissions, ensuring clean air for our children and grandchildren and saving American families money on their fuel and maintenance costs – a real win-win for anyone who isn’t a fossil fuel executive,” said Sanders.Sources: Bloomberg, Senator Kamala Harris