Electric Bus Company Catches Washington's Eye

The White House recognized the company for its green buses that can be charged in just 10 minutes.
by | August 8, 2012 AT 10:00 AM

It takes about four hours to fully charge an iPhone. But a new type of bus can be charged in about 10 minutes.

Proterra, a company founded in 2004, offers transit agencies the promise of clean, quiet vehicles for their fleet. Their signature product is EcoRide, a 35-foot battery-powered bus that doesn't release carbon emissions and doesn't burn expensive fossil fuels. 
The company got attention from the White House last week when CEO David Bennett, who joined the company last year, was honored alongside other transportation leaders as part of a program called "Champions of Change."
"When you're a small company, and people work really long hours ... for the employees here, it's a great recognition," says Bennett.
This isn't the first time the company has turned heads in Washington and elsewhere. After visiting the Department of Transportation a few years ago, Proterra was featured on the agency's blog. The company has received investments from the Federal Transit Administration, as well as venture capital from General Motors.
This summer, Proterra, along with the transit agency in San Joaquin County, Calif., received a California Energy Commission grant to launch a demonstration program. Two new electric buses will be added to the agency's fleet along with a charging station at its downtown transit center. The equipment will arrive in spring 2013, according to Bennett. Proterra's electric buses have also been ordered by Ponoma, Calif.; San Antonio; Seneca, S.C.; and Tallahassee, Fla.
What's innovative about the bus and its charging system is both the speed and ease of the charge. As a bus driver approaches a charging station, sensors detect the vehicle and automatically guide it into position to be charged. 
Company officials say that transit agencies can reach $300,000 in fuel savings over the 12-year lifespan of its bus compared to a conventional diesel vehicle. The design of the bus body and engine would result in another $75,000 to $150,000 in maintenance savings, according to the company. You can see the company's math here.
As Governing noted last year, promises of savings from green vehicles should be studied carefully, since those savings sometimes don't materialize when up-front costs are taken into account. 
Bennett's pitch to transit agencies is that they can get more flexibility when they go electric. A bus that's fueled by diesel or compressed natural gas (CNG) is essentially stuck using that fuel source, while buses that plug into power grids can take advantage of whatever fuel source the local electric agency has deemed  the most cost-effective.
"The power utility is able to get very good economics around energy, whether they're buying solar or (compressed natural gas) or nuclear," Bennett says. "They do it cost effectively. On the other side, with a diesel CNG bus, they have to manage that cost locally." 
The buses run 30 miles on a single charge. While that would be too short for a personal vehicle, buses travel on fixed routes and return to their starting point relatively quickly. The system works well with the way the vehicles are typically used, Bennett says.
See the bus and charger in action: