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.