July 26, 2012 12:00 am

The green route

On the buses: the only difference commuters notice on Proterra's electric vehicles is the lack of noise; the charging process is automated

In southern California, the car reigns supreme. But in a region not exactly known for its wide range of public transport options, one city is experimenting with technology that could point the way to a greener future.

Named after the Roman goddess of fruit, Pomona is a city of 160,000 people, about an hour’s drive from Los Angeles along the usually congested freeway. It is in the foothills of the San Gabriel Valley, one of the most densely populated parts of the US and an area that has historically struggled with poor air quality caused by emissions from cars.

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Improving air quality and moving to cleaner fuels is a priority across southern California. Foothill Transit, which operates public transport in Pomona and 21 other local cities, has implemented an all-electric bus scheme, running a test involving three vehicles since 2010. The buses are provided by Proterra, a South Carolina company backed by Kleiner Perkins, the venture firm that was an early investor in tech companies such as Google and Amazon.

Proterra developed the charging stations and buses, which, unlike most other electric systems, only require 10 minutes to charge. “The fast charging made it really interesting for us,” says Felicia Friesema, director of marketing for Foothill Transit. “Charging in under 10 minutes is essential for making electric technology feasible for use in a day-to-day system.”

On a typically hot, cloudless southern California day at the bus station, passengers wait patiently outside a terracotta-coloured building that houses the central transit operation. It has changed little in decades: the main office has even preserved the original telephone exchange behind glass.

Outside, though, it is a different story, with an electric bus-charging facility built above a power line supplied by Southern California Edison, the local utility. The docking station hangs over the road, allowing the bus to drive underneath it and connect with the charging arm, which plugs into its roof.

Charging is simple and straightforward: the driver only has to pull up close to the charger and the rest of the process is automated. And while it may be technologically sophisticated, the bus stop, outwardly at least, appears little different from the other stops at the hub. “Pomona’s city planning commission required that Proterra install a docking station that mimicked the original architecture,” explains Friesema.

A charged bus glides away from the station noiselessly. Electric motors make less sound than diesel or petrol engines, and the noisiest component of the bus – apart from a scripture-quoting man regaling his fellow passengers – is the air-conditioning unit.

The bus takes a short circular route and after about 20 minutes it returns to the transit centre, where it is charged once more.

“Previous electric systems would need an overnight charge,” says Friesema. This was not practical, she adds. “It meant we would be short a bus for an entire day … so electric bus technology wasn’t really realistic for the type of service that we provide. We needed something that could get back into service quickly and work seamlessly for the customer. They don’t want to know that the reason their bus didn’t turn up is because it ran out of juice.”

The project was paid for with stimulus funds provided to states and local governments by the US government following the 2008 financial crisis. With the Federal Transit Administration keen to move public buses to cleaner, lower-emission fuels, money was made available to Foothill Transit and other transport authorities. Foothill Transit received a $20m grant: if the project is deemed a success, an additional nine buses will be ordered.

Proterra originally looked at fuel cell technology before concluding that battery-powered buses would be more economical and practical. The group was founded by Dale Hill eight years ago, after launching a pioneering fleet of alternative-fuel buses in Denver, Colorado. Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers has been Proterra’s largest shareholder since 2011, when it invested $30m. The funds came at a critical time for Proterra, which was desperate for capital following a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into one of its largest shareholders.

GM Ventures, the investment arm of General Motors, invested alongside Kleiner Perkins in Proterra. But with the money came a push for more experienced management: Hill was replaced as chairman by David Lehmann, a former executive with General Electric and Caterpillar, the earthmoving equipment maker.

Marc Gottschalk, Proterra’s chief business development officer, says zero-emission buses can also save money in the long run. “Because of the higher efficiency of the buses we can save [the transit authorities] money they would have spent on fuel costs in a pretty dramatic fashion.”

An all-electric bus would save more than $500,000 in fuel costs over a 12-year period, he says. In the UK and Europe, where petrol prices tend to be higher than in the US, “the saving would probably be 50 per cent more than that”.

There is the matter of paying for electricity. There is also an environmental cost: as more people switch to electric vehicles, power stations will have to produce more power. Friesema says Foothill Transit is offsetting its electricity consumption by buying renewable energy credits that promote cleaner energy. California is also aggressively moving towards renewable energy.

With electric buses offering big savings on fuel – and federal grants available – it is little wonder that cash-strapped transit authorities are interested. But the nascent technology continues to be expensive for now.

“On the capital cost side, what we’re seeing is more economies of scale being driven by the auto industry,” says Gottschalk. Carmakers are already selling electric cars, which is driving down the price of components and related parts. “When we first put a price on a [bus charging station] the price was $1m. But it has fallen now to about half that, and is coming down all the time.”

In Pomona, the project has worked well. “We feel that the number one way we can clean up the air is by getting people to [use] public transport instead of their car,” says Friesema.

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