June 2010


When lay individuals consider the new electric economy as it pertains to transportation, they typically think of a trendy electric sports car or its corresponding charging station.  I would venture to say that seldom, if ever, do these individuals think about the stodgy old bus.  Well, the bus designed and built from Golden, CO based Proterra, formerly Mobile Energy Solutions, is far from the lumbering, belching bus your grandmother knew.  The 6 year old company is dedicated to making the drive components and energy storage systems for electric and hybrid buses, delivery vans and other commercial models, as well as the vehicles themselves.  Just this month, Proterra landed a $20 million investment from MK Energy and Infrastructure to build an assembly plant in Greenville, SC by 2011.

Unlike the majority of cars on the road, buses generally drive a fixed route that is highly predictable and routine.  This repetitive pattern makes it the perfect vehicle to adopt a range restricting electric engine.  Apparently, other cities feel the same way as Proterra has stated that as many as 21 transit agencies around the country had requested government funding for the purchase of more than $400 million worth of its vehicles.

From a technical perspective, the Proterra designed bus will travel 30 to 40 miles at 11 to 13 miles per hour before it needs a recharge, which it gets by passing under a contact arm at a bus stop or a bus yard.  According to Proterra founder Dale Hill, batteries can be recharged in under 10 minutes.  At present, the companies first and foremost objective is to reduce the price of the vehicle from approximatley $1 million to under $300,000.  This can only be accomplished by manufacturing scale, an issue currently being addressed with the new South Carolina plant.  From there, the largest technical challenge lies in extending the range of the battery and improving speed.  2012 appears to be the date that the company is targeting for these improvements.

While the electric car field is already crowded with competitors, the nascent electric bus and truck market is releatively spacious.  Smith Electric Vehicles of Kansas City, MO is one of the other companies attempting to make a dent in the heavy vehicle electric market.  For now however, it appears that Proterra has a significant headstart over its competitors in the US.  Generally, a good trend in cleantech power and transportation is to look at China.  If the nation of nearly 1.4 billion capitalists is pursuing an initiative, chances are it will have staying power in one form or another.  Well, plenty of Chinese manufacturers and state owned companies are pursuing electric buses.  Just one example here.

The electric bus has particularly outstanding potential.  This market is truly massive.  Just imagine a day in the next decade when cities like New York and Los Angelas have rapid bus networks that zip people across town while emitting zero noxious gas (so many more al fresco dining options…..).  Or, envision a time when all school buses are powered by a battery, thereby making a mere mild buzz as they pass by and not the standard rumble?  These days are no doubt coming.  Likely, sooner than we might think.  Companies like Proterra will help us get there.

**Disclaimer: I am working as an extern in the law department of the Chicago Transit Authority this summer.  The CTA does not endorse or sponsor my writing on this blog.**

Being a public transit person creates a lot of conversation, especially with people living in urban centers.  Everyone has a public transit story, or complaint, or idea.  Transit is the great commonality in cities, not merely as conversation, but as public space and property as well.  It is this latter piece, as public property and space that mystifies some people.

At least a handful of people have argued to me that public transit should be privatized or at least support itself financially without any sort of public subsidy.  Ironically, these seem to frequently be the same people that are upset that public transit has not made one sort of accommodation or another, whether it is for the handicapped, or enough service, or insufficient cleanliness.

I am in no way against economic efficiency in the sense that transit systems should work to keep costs down.  However it is problematic when transit systems are expected to fend for themselves financially (as Governor Christie seems to desire for NJ Transit).  Such a system results in a terrible combination of higher fares, less service, and greater inaccessibility for those who least can afford such cutbacks.

The Chicago Reader recently featured a fantastic history of the early years of the CTA.  Robert Loerzel wrote a very-well researched story of how transit systems operated in Chicago from the mid-nineteenth century until the period of public ownership of the urban rails in the mid-twentieth century.  Loerzel used this history to illustrate how private ownership of utilities frustrates public purposes.  Moreover, especially in this era of governmental criticism, he demonstrates why reformers sought public ownership of utilities, including public transit, in the first place.  A great summary quote:

The dream of municipal ownership finally became a reality in 1947, when the Chicago Transit Authority was formed to take over the bankrupt transit lines. Finding enough money to run the CTA has been a problem ever since. “A transit system that was unable to survive on fares as a private enterprise was somehow expected to do so as a public entity in a declining market,” Young wrote. The all-time high for public-transit use in Chicago was the late 1920s, he says, when the city’s streetcars, buses, and trains annually handled more than 1.1 billion rides. In 2009 the CTA handled 521 million rides, not quite half as many.

This history is not unique to Chicago and Loerzel’s article is informative for residents of all cities, not just Chicagoans.   Moreover, the lessons regarding transit apply to all public services (e.g. police, health care, roads, energy, water, etc.).

Based on those of my peers who have suggested privatizing transit I think many are just deluded by Reaganomics.  The others who believe more sincerely in privatization usually have more sinister anti-urban or racist or classist goals that go along with cutbacks in public transportation.

In these tough financial times it is difficult to find money for all services.  However, suggestions to privatize our public transportation systems is not the answer to our woes.  Private companies will not put people first, but rather profits.  The good of our cities depends on continuing investment (and reasonable expectations of sound fiscal policy with that investment) in our great public properties and spaces, our transportation systems.

As the US moves ever so slowly to a transportation mix that includes plug-in electric vehicles (PEV), the lack of mileage range on PEVs has emerged as a critical concern going forward.  Despite many PEVs such as the Leaf, Coda, and the BYD e6 that have made mileage claims of approximately 100 miles per charge, the general public remains extremely worried that these cars will not live up to this stated performance.  Despite the fact that the vast majority of Americans drive far fewer than 100 miles per day, it is the freedom of untethered mobility that has become woven into the fabric of American life.  There is nothing more terrifying to the American driver than the feeling of being stranded.  This is even more magnified when driving a vehicle powered by a battery as oppoed to one simply running on a tank of liquid fuel.

There is no doubt that one of the fundamental obstacles toward widespread PEV adoption is the lack of a successful charging (“refueling”) infrastructure.  At present in the US, there does not exist a distributed network of PEV charging stations.  At best, companies such as Coulomb and Better Place have a smattering of stations across mainly California.  One issue these companies have faced has been finding a location that would provide for a concentrated amount of charging stations to satisfy demand.  In lieu of a highly developed gas station-esque car charging network, consumers will rely on their trusty garage outlet to provide their PEV with all the electrons it will need for a full days charge.  While this could be seen as convenient since one could simply charge the car overnight (though it is not clear this method is suitable for urban residents), this still does not satiate the demands of people who want to refill on the go when they’re out and about.

Now that I’ve laid out the dilemma, I would like to make a rather modest, albeit not novel, proposal.  It would entail massive, widespread deployment of distributed car charging stations.  These would be rolled out en masse in parking lots across the country.  This would have particular appeal in the suburbs as seemingly 99% of our suburban jungles are now paved over to accommodate strip malls or big box retailers.  Coincidentally, it just so happens that parking lots generally provide high solar irradiation compared to rooftops or other structures.  This is largely due to the lack of shadowing both from trees or high buildings.  Several companies have proposed “solar canopies” and several firms are actually developing parking lots with 10-200kW of solar potential.  Pairing the “solar canopy” concept with PEV battery charging stations could provide outstanding synergies.  Firstly, solar is a peaking resource meaning it produces the majority of its electricity during the day when most people are doing the bulk of their driving.  Secondly, with the implementation of the smart grid, this type of natural resource integration will reduce the strain on the local power utility.

Overall, the pairing of the solar parking lot canopy with PEV charging stations has the potential to become as ubiquitious as gas stations.  This will surely rush along the adoption of PEVs.  As for the cost of the solar canopy structure itself, or the battery charging station, I will discuss this in a later post.

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