Headline, July 15, 2021: Report: Philadelphia’s Proterra fleet in complete shambles; $24 million worth of Proterra buses taken off the road due to problems
Headline, July 23, 2021: Proterra bus fire prompts California agency to consider shelving electric bus fleet; electric buses are melting in sun, too expensive to fix, transit official says
Some folks over at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory recently did a study of the cost-effectiveness of battery electric transit buses. Guess what they found?
Yup. Battery electric buses (BEBs) can be a good bargain – only if the purchasing transit company can wangle a big enough grant. They even specify that the minimum grant needed per bus is about $715,000 for depot-charge projects and $1.2 million for fast-charge projects.
The NREL report provided still further insights that reveal an industry not yet ready for prime time. The authors assert that deeper research is needed to determine the impact of temperature, auxiliary loads, and driving style on BEB efficiency.
Further study on the economics of battery leasing should be done, they added, both at research institutes and at fleet level (making early buyers into guinea pigs). Another possible offset to costs is finding markets for these batteries in stationary applications once they are too weak to move buses full of people around.
What this means is that subsidizing huge fleets of vehicles that are still in the testing stage is likely not a great investment. Especially when you factor in that your taxes paid for the subsidies that in turn (because of deficit spending) increase all your other costs.
But what to do? Surely the U.S., let alone the rest of the world, cannot electrify their transportation without a little help from their grandchildren’s grandchildren?
David Rapson, who teaches economics at the University of California Davis, came up with what he calls a “hare-brained idea.” He says that, rather than rely on EV subsidies to lower CO2 emissions, just make gasoline-powered cars and trucks more expensive to buy.
Rapson sees Norway, where hydroelectric dams provide nearly all its electricity, as a model for the U.S. Just make ICE vehicles subject to a carbon tax, a weight tax, and a 25 percent sales tax (none of which will apply to EVs) to discourage half of America from buying ANY new car.
Boyo. That really helps rural America and the poor!
Rapson explains his reasoning. Because today 60 percent of electricity production in the U.S. (and 58 percent worldwide) is from burning of fossil fuels, most plugged-in vehicles are burning fossil fuels too.
Moreover, charging an EV in colder environments can emit more CO2 than driving an equivalent gasoline vehicle. On top of that, heating the vehicle also drains the battery. Thus, driving an EV in Canada, or Minnesota, on a cold winter day can hardly be called “green.”
Then there is the reality that each EV that replaces an internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle adds to the net load on the power grid. And grids in California, Texas, and elsewhere are heavily stressed, especially during peak heat and cold seasons.
But back to being bus-specific. First off, they have to work to be of any value at all. And battery electric buses have a poor track record, though the bus companies have been responsive to complaints and real-world problems with their multi-million-dollar toys.
The Duluth Monitor reported that the Duluth Transit Authority in 2015 had purchased seven buses (at $900,000 apiece) from South Carolina-based bus manufacturer Proterra using a $6.3 million grant. The DTA and Proterra engineers spent two years designing a bus for this pilot project that would operate in Duluth’s climate and steep topography.
Rather than place fast-charging stations around the city, the DTA had the buses equipped with longer life batteries that all were recharged at the DTA’s service garage. All seven buses lasted only 2 months.
The buses’ braking systems were struggling on Duluth’s hills, and a software problem was causing them to roll backwards while accelerating uphill from a dead stop. The bus heaters were also draining the batteries too rapidly on cold days, forcing drivers to hobble back to the garage for a recharge long before their shift was done.
Proterra’s crew ended up installing diesel-powered heating systems on the buses, enabling the batteries to complete their routes but ending the façade of emissions-free transportation – at a cost of $400,000 more than a diesel bus.
But they fixed everything, right?
Fast forward to July 2021. Two articles in eight days announced major problems with Proterra battery electric buses – problems that may not be unique to Proterra.
Philadelphia had used a $2.4 million grant to subsidize the $24 million fleet of 25 Proterra-built battery electric buses. The entire fleet, however, was removed from the streets in February 2020 by the city’s transit authority due to both structural and logistical problems. The batteries were so heavy they were cracking the buses’ chassis and were averaging only 30 to 50 miles per charge – less than half the length of even the shortest city daily bus runs.
Out in suburban Los Angeles, the Foothill Transit agency is facing a major decision whether to sideline all of their Proterra BEBs after one of them caught fire while charging. Other BEBs in Cailfornia have reportedly melted in the heat and had transmission failures. And back in 2015, a prototype Proterra bus exploded after at the factory catching fire; only one bus tire was found.
Proterra’s significant failures should be a political embarrassment. The Philadelphia Proterra buses were rolled out at the 2016 Democratic Convention with the promise that the city was “plugging into” an emissions-free future. Biden climate advisor Gina McCarthy recently asked Proterra CEO Jack Allen how the federal government could spur demand for Proterra BEBs.
And Biden’s new Energy Secretary, Jennifer Granholm, served on Proterra’s board from 2017 until early 2021. The watchdog group Protect the Public Trust recently tweeted that, “The American public is left wondering (because she delayed divesting of her Proterra stock until after a Biden visit touting the company) if the Secretary benefitted from the Administration’s promotion of the ‘Tesla of electric buses’.”
Still want to buy, let alone subsidize, these white elephants?