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Proterra Diesel-Killing Electric Bus Is Ready For Prime Time (CT Exclusive Interview)

The electric bus manufacturer Proterra is set to blow up the public transit bus market with its new diesel-killing extended range Catalyst model.

When it comes to electric vehicle sexytimes, naturally, thoughts turn to the Tesla Model S, but over here at CleanTechnica, we do try to keep things clean, so we’ll focus on Proterra, the electric bus company that is dead set on killing off diesel buses, one transit agency at a time. After selling 100 electric buses on a demo basis out of South Carolina, Proterra is vaulting into full-scale production at its spanking new California facility, where it expects to churn out 424 more in short order.

Speaking of Tesla, last month our sister site made the point that for just a couple of bucks per ride, practically anyone could get a Tesla-style electric vehicle experience — well, sort of — on an electric bus, so let’s see what Proterra is up to.

Proterro electric bus

Get Ready For The Electric Bus Revolution

Especially for urban areas with air pollution problems, the advantage of the electric bus over diesel is significant. Add quiet to emission-free, and you have a killer combination that makes city life much more pleasant.

The main obstacle, of course, is cost, and that’s where Proterra comes in. The company’s Catalyst™ 40-foot electric bus platform clocks in at 21.4 MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent) for an average cost of 19 cents per mile. That stacks up rather nicely against the average transit bus, which chugs along in the range of 3 (yes, three) miles per gallon.

While your typical electric bus might cost more up front, the lifetime savings can more than make up for it.

Proterra totes up the lifetime maintenance savings for the Catalyst over diesel at $135,000. No engine oil changes, 30% fewer moving parts, longer-lasting brakes, and a corrosion resistant body factor in.

The Electric Bus Leaps Into The Limelight

That’s just for starters. We had a chance to speak with Proterra VP of Sales and Marketing Matt Horton earlier this week, and he pointed out that fuel savings are “really where the economics will push the marketplace.”

When you consider the public transit buses average around 50,000 miles per year, that 21.4 MPGe is going to add up to big bucks.

Proterra also trimmed down costs related to refueling with a quick-charging system.

Horton foresees that within 5 to 10 years, the majority of transit agencies will go all-electric. While that might sound a bit optimistic, the company’s electric buses have already logged a million miles of service with 14 different transit agencies.

As mentioned earlier, that figure is based on a demonstration scale production model, and according to Horton, demand is so high that Proterra’s South Carolina facility has an 18-month backlog.

“The early adopters have already adopted,” is the way Horton puts it, and it appears that hesitant transit managers are beginning to look at the growing pile of real-world statistics for electric buses.

That’s a pie in the face for all those electric vehicle (EV) doubters out there who have been clinging to the notion that batteries don’t pack enough punch for heavy use, such as a full busload of people.

When you throw in future improvements elsewhere in the field, such as wireless bus charginghere’s another example — the technology could get even more attractive.

Back to Proterra, its new facility in California will enable the company to ramp up production while slashing prices, so let’s take a look at that.

Go West, Electric Bus

During our conversation, Horton explained that Proterra’s business model is based on setting up relatively small manufacturing facilities where its US customers are, rather than establishing one or two gigantic manufacturing plants to serve the entire country.

That helps to cut down on costs (delivery costs, for example), while providing more local economies with good-quality manufacturing jobs.

It also provides an opportunity to leverage local economic development support, and the new California facility is a good example of that strategy in action.

The support is coming in the form of a new $3 million grant from the California Energy Commission, to develop and construct the new facility in San Gabriel Valley.

With Proterra’s lean production model in mind, the whole thing is expected to be up and running later this year, putting more than 70 people to work.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch, so Proterra is on the hook to demonstrate that the economic benefits of the new facility will offset the grant. The expectations are high, according to the company:

The project will accelerate private investment in California, bringing in $5,411,352 in private investment to match the $3,000,000 California Energy Commission investment, for a total project budget of $8,411,352.

In its press materials (embargoed as of this writing), Proterra is also proud to point out that it is the only bus manufacturer that won a grant from the California Energy Commission in the current round of funding.

Transit agencies are already beating down the doors to place orders. Concurrently with the aforementioned embargoed press release, Proterra has also announced that the San Gabriel/Pomona bus provider Foothill Transit put in an order for 13 of those first 424 buses, for delivery in 2016.

Foothill, btw, is an early adopter. The new order is its fourth over the past five years, and it will bring the company’s stable electric buses to almost 10% of its total fleet.

As an early adopter, Foothill gets bragging rights to the first of Proterra’s new extended-range Catalyst™ XR to roll off the assembly line at the new plant.

Foothill serves a population of about 14 million people in Los Angeles County, so that’s no small potatoes.

What Does An Electric Bus Have In Common With A Wind Turbine Blade?

Horton had many more interesting things to say about the electric bus market and Proterra’s cutting edge technology, but we’ll get to that in another post. In the meantime, he did throw out a little hint about wind turbine blades.

If you have any idea what he’s talking about, drop us a note in the comment thread.

Photo by Proterra

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Spoutible.


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