“Everything that has an urban drive cycle will ultimately be an electric vehicle.” That’s what Ryan Popple, the president and CEO of Proterra, the leading U.S. electric bus company, explained to me in a recent interview.
The future of transit isn’t cleaner diesel, hybrids, natural gas, or hydrogen fuel-cell buses, argues Popple. The rapidly dropping price for electric batteries combined with new fast-charging technology appears to render the competition obsolete. Right now, the biggest question isn’t which technology will win in the bus market — it’s how quickly all-electrics will take over, and whether Proterra can keep ahead of the Chinese competition, like electric vehicle giant BYD.
Popple is focused on electrifying the transit market, which he expects “will be 100 percent electric” in a decade or so. If Popple’s vision for electrifying buses sounds as ambitious as Elon Musk’s is for cars, perhaps that’s because he was an early employee of Tesla and served as Senior Director of Finance at the company. Like Tesla, Proterra is not putting new batteries into an old vehicle design. It has redesigned the bus from the ground up to optimize it for an all-electric drive with fast-charging capabilities.
As a finance guy, Popple makes clear that the numbers no longer add up for the competition. For instance, Proterra had actually built and sold four hydrogen fuel-cell buses before battery prices plummeted. Now he tells me, “The reason we don’t market a hydrogen fuel-cell bus for customers is that it’s a really bad decision for them.”
Popple explained that hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles are a “technology looking for a problem.” I’ve been making that case for over a decade, but the exponentially-growing success of electric vehicles now simply leaves no significant room (or rationale) in the marketplace for hydrogen vehicles, big or small. I will do a separate post on that subject soon.
Proterra’s 40-foot electric buses have fuel efficiency equivalent to 22 miles per gallon, giving them one-fifth to one-fourth of the per-mile fueling cost of regular diesels, hybrids, and natural gas buses. And they have much lower maintenance costs. So over the 10- to 12-year lifetime of a typical urban transport bus, the Proterra can save $400,000 in total operational costs compared to a typical diesel.
So with the kind of sharp price drops in batteries we’ve been seeing, it was only a matter of time before the higher first-cost of the electric bus was dwarfed by the fuel and maintenance costs savings. Indeed, quietly, we’ve already passed that inflection point — so Proterra is another entry in my series, “Almost everything you know about climate change solutions is outdated.”
Today, with batteries in the $300/kwh range, Proterra can offer private operators a deal where they buy the bus and lease the battery for the same upfront costs as the diesel alternative, but with guaranteed monthly savings. That is very similar to the kind of lease deal for solar power that proved game-changing several years ago. Significantly, because the technology is so well-demonstrated in the marketplace, Proterra can actually get third-party private financing so that it can get paid the full cost of the bus upfront.
With numbers like these it’s no wonder that Proterra has a 1.5-year backlog of orders with a cumulative value of $100 million. And it’s no wonder Proterra has been winning most the grants awarded in the Federal Transit Authority’s (FTA) Low and No Emission Vehicle Deployment Program.
Superfast On-Route Charging From Seconds To Minutes Is Another Game Changer For Urban Vehicles
What about the last remaining “Achilles Heel” for electric vehicles — charging time? As it turns out, when you are driving around in a city on regular routes (as buses are) this problem fades away thanks to the latest superfast charging technology.
Proterra can give its bus an extra two or three hours of drive time in a matter of minutes with its on-route charging system. A key enabling feature is the ability to recover as much as 92 percent of regenerative braking energy, which allows each bus to go a lot further on each charge. Proterra has demonstrated its buses can travel more than 700 miles in 24 hours using such a system.
“The world’s most fuel-efficient bus, the Proterra Catalyst™, is available with on-route, fast-charge technology that enables infinite range and in-yard slow charging,” as Bloomberg New Energy Finance described the solution in their statement last year explaining why they named Proterra one of their 10 disruptive “New Energy Pioneers” of 2015.
And if you think charging in five minutes is fast, one Chinese bus company uses a similar on-route charging system — but with much faster bursts. Zhuzhou Electric Locomotive, which is a subsidiary of high-speed train maker CRRC, uses advanced super-capacitors to charge batteries for 3 miles (5 kilometers) more of transit … in ten seconds!
The bus “operates a 11-km route with 24 stops,” so superfast charging allows it to just keep going and going and going — all the while delivering “one-tenth the energy cost of a diesel bus with lifetime fuel savings of $200,000.” The city of Ningbo in Zhejiang province, where the bus factory is located, plans to purchase 1,200 of these buses over the next three years.
Significantly, back in 2013, the engineering powerhouse company ABB delivered to the Geneva public transport authority a bus using a wireless “flash system that allows it to be recharged in 15 seconds at every stop with an overhead device that delivers 400 kilowatts of electricity.” The pilot test was a success, and Geneva is planning a larger rollout of the system in the near future.
Game Change For Affordable, Carbon-Free Urban Transit
Electric buses with fast or superfast charging are a game-changer in the pursuit of affordable zero-emission transit. For those concerned that, over the next decade, we are facing a glut of cheap day-time solar power that will wreak havoc on the grid, have no fear: Electric vehicle makers (and buyers) are eagerly looking forward to the day when they can recharge their EVs during the day with abundant, low cost, renewable power.
“Everything that has an urban drive cycle will ultimately be an electric vehicle,” to repeat the main point of Proterra’s Poppel. That means garbage trucks, delivery vans, food carts/trucks, campus vans, and on and on. And that will be on top of the success Tesla, Nissan, and GM have in the personal vehicle market.
The future of low-carbon transit and transportation is here — and it is electrifying.