Putting the Bus Before the Battery - TribPapers

Putting the Bus Before the Battery

Staff rendering.

Asheville – The City of Asheville made national headlines on January 23. This time, the local government was ridiculed for being an early adapter that took too much of a risk. Nobody’s criticizing early adapters; they’re essential to technological progress. Nobody’s demeaning calculated risk; it’s essential to entrepreneurship. The problem was with government risking taxpayer dollars in high-stakes adventurism.

The technology in question was electric buses. The city purchased five at a cost of about $1 million each back in 2018. The buses were purchased from Proterra, described in a city press release as “a leader in the design and manufacture of zero-emission electric buses.”

Then Interim Transportation Planning Manager Vaidila Satvika shared the city’s intel at the time. “Although the upfront cost of electric buses is higher, life-cycle costs are projected to be lower because fuel and maintenance of electric buses is less expensive and thereby contributes to a greater overall savings. In addition, zero-emission buses provide social benefits that are more difficult to quantify.”

At the time of purchase, the city had been looking forward to energy independence and reducing carbon emissions by 54 tons per year per bus. Now, three of the buses have been taken offline. Interim Transportation Director Jessica Morriss reported ongoing software and mechanical problems; one bus stalled in traffic only five days after it hit Asheville’s roads.

Morriss broke down (pun intended) the costs. Each bus cost $616,796 outright, but Asheville’s costs were reduced with grants, including $633,333 from the Federal Transit Administration’s Low or No Emission Vehicle Program. In addition, Duke Energy gave the city $200,000 to pay for charging stations.

The city spent $118,000 a year to lease batteries and $45,481 more on its annual electric bills. Maintenance expenditures have included $251,000, mostly for replacing the electric motors on all buses, and $70,000 for replacing all five power inverters. The city also acknowledged the indirect cost of wear and tear the sidelined electric buses have imposed on the rest of the fleet.

Morriss said it will be difficult to bring these buses back to life because the manufacturer, Proterra, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Proterra’s bottom line was highly supported by government subsidies, including $10 million in COVID loans, which were forgiven. The company has since been purchased by Phoenix Motorcars, but the city has received no word about if and when parts for Proterra buses will become available. The city, therefore, must find custom-made items, like doors, if it is to keep the electric vehicles moving.

Asheville has been having problems with the buses, even when they work. For example, the recent cold spell made it plain that batteries “lose their juice” as temperatures drop. Consequently, at 32oF, the average range of an electric vehicle drops to 20% of its fair weather distance, and at 22oF, cars can only go 60% as far as they normally can. At the same time, the vehicle is usually draining more from the battery to run the heater, and battery-powered features like brakes, lamps, and windshield wipers could be used more. Batteries also take more time to charge in cold temperatures.

Asheville’s electric buses have a range of about 78 miles in cold weather. So, after running about three routes, they would have to return to the city’s charging station for a slow recharge. At least city policymakers had the presence of mind to have the bus interiors heated while on the grid.

The Blaze reported that none of Jackson, Wyoming’s eight Proterra buses were working. Additionally, none of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority’s 25 Proterra buses have been in commission following three “systemic fleet maintenance issues” in as many years.

In the near term, Morriss said the city is going to be more cautious to make sure investments work. Since 2018, the buses the city has purchased have relied on more intermediate technological advances: nine were biodiesel and five were hybrids. Asheville City Council will soon be asked to approve the purchase of two more biodiesel buses, which are expected to be about half as pricey as their idle electric counterparts.

As Asheville was being scandalized, Governor Roy Cooper was traveling the state, pushing the use of electric school buses. The state received 114 buses from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean School Bus program. Buncombe County Schools were not eager to jump on the bandwagon. The school district’s Transportation Director Jeremy Stowe needed to be convinced the buses would be able to work the stop-and-go routine on mountain roads. He was also concerned about things like the time and costs involved in training drivers and maintenance teams and obtaining spare parts.