Zero-Pollution Buses Emerge With Backing From Silicon Valley

Buses that don’t emit pollution or draw on coal power are starting to appear on the streets of US citiers with the support of Silicon Valley and a company backed by Warren Buffett according to reports by Bloomberg

Between now and the end of 2015 Seattle will roll out two all-electric buses made by  Proterra Inc. Seattle draws 95 percent of its electricity from renewables, mostly hydro-electric dams that don’t use fossil fuels, so charging the fleet won’t increase emissions.

The trials are also being run in Dallas and San Antonio in Texas and in Worcester, Massachusetts, and prove that battery-powered buses can move people more, efficiently, quietly and cost effectively than traditional diesel models. While for many years cities  have embedded hydrogen and natural-gas vehicles in their fleet the electric bus fueled by renewables holds the promise of delivering transport for the masses without damaging the atmosphere.

“We’re pushing to get as green as we can, battery buses are where hybrid buses were 10 years ago. We’ll only buy hybrids or all-electric buses going forward and there will be significant fuel cost savings, we expect it to be a lot cheaper over its life,”  said George Stites, supervisor of fleet services for King County Metro, which runs Seattle’s transit system.

While all-electric sports cars from Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors have grabbed headlines and the attention of the public, it’s buses that are in many ways better suited for the technology. The size of the bus can more easily absorb heavy battery units, and running them on set routes means charging cycles can be planned in advance.

Lesser known companies such as BYD Co., backed by Buffett, along with Proterra and New Flyer Industries Inc. dominate the nascent electric bus industry.

City transit managers have long been ahead of the curve on replacing diesel vehicles. More than 41 percent of US city bus fleets were using battery, fuel-cell and hybrid technologies at the start of this year compared with just 2.1 percent of US cars according to the American Public Transportation Association.

“We’re leading the way with electric buses the same way we have with other alternative fuels,” said Virginia Miller, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based industry group. Those figures include hybrids and natural gas buses as well as all-electric.

Still, the benefits of all-electric buses may be limited. Only 2.5 percent of U.S. commuters use buses, compared with 76 percent who use their cars.

Recent battery improvements have made the new buses cheaper than diesel with both lower lifetime fuel and maintenance costs. By 2020, 59 percent of the world’s transit buses will be electric hybrids and 12 percent will be all electric, according to analysts Frost and Sullivan.

Chicago Transit Authority expects two electric buses it bought from New Flyer Industries will each save $US300,000 in fuel costs and $US660,000 in public health costs over their 12-year expected runs. That more than makes up for the $US500,000 premium over the diesel buses that the electric ones replaced. They can run for 160 kilometres — a full day’s work — before needing to recharge overnight. CTA operates about 1,800 buses.

“Electric drive trains make the most sense in heavier vehicles,” said Michael Linse, a partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins that’s made early investments in Proterra. “Hybrids get a third of the market now and they’re just marginally better and very expensive at $650,000 to $700,000. It was almost all diesel 10 years ago.”

BYD Co., the Chinese automaker partly-owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., projected it will sell as many as 200 electric buses in the U.S. this year after securing an order from Long Beach, California. The company has sold more than 5,000  electric buses globally, including 50 in in the U.S. BYD plans to sell about 6,000 electric buses this year.

Their 60-foot-long bus can carry 120 passengers 320 km on a single charge.In California Long Beach is adding a wireless charging system at one stop, where each bus can get enough juice for to go another 7.2 km during the seven minutes it takes customers to board.

Electric buses cost more initially than diesel. Savings come over time with lower fuel and maintenance costs, said Michael Austin, a vice president at BYD in New York. The high entry cost has stunted demand from transit agencies because capital spending decisions are made separately from operations.

“It can be hard for them to see the lower total cost of ownership,” Austin said in an interview. “If you look over the lifetime you get at least $US500,000 in savings,” per bus.