Tesla for the Masses: Electric, Fuel Cell Buses Take Off

In an increasing number of cities, bus riders experience the clean, quiet ride of electric buses.

In cities worldwide, buses are morphing into giant battery-powered rolling computers. Equipped with the same technologies as the luxury Tesla sedan, they offer a clean, quiet ride for the price of a bus fare.

An expanding fleet of electric and fuel cell buses is taking to urban streets in several countries, notably the United States and China. These buses have higher sticker prices, but because they don’t burn fossil fuels, they cost less to operate and help clean the air.

Zero-emission buses are tapping innovation aimed mostly at cars and deploying it more rapidly. Buoyed by government funds for green public transit—even America’s iconic yellow school bus—their numbers are soaring.

“We’re starting to see a breakout point,” says Bill Van Amburg, senior vice president of CALSTART, a nonprofit group that works with companies and transit agencies to develop green transportation technologies.

In the U.S., he expects the number of zero-emission buses to double in the next year and account for 20 percent of the transit bus market by 2030. His group says 130 were on order or traveling U.S. streets by the end of 2014; most in commercial use debuted within the past three years.

Partly electric buses have already taken off in the U.S., making up 17 percent of the fleet in 2014—up from one percent in 2005, according to the American Public Transportation Association. So far, though, most are gasoline-electric or diesel-electric hybrids, and only a tiny fraction are fully powered by fuel cells or batteries.

That’s changing. Next week, BYD Motors plans to deliver the first five electric-only buses—of a 25-bus order—to LA Metro, the major bus and rail operator for Los Angeles County. BYD is a subsidiary of a Chinese company that has made more electric buses‚ about 5,200 worldwide, than any other manufacturer.

Once focused largely on China, it’s now turning to the U.S. market. BYD opened two factories in California, one to make the batteries and the other the buses, and rolled out its first vehicles last year. Matthew Jurjevich, market research analyst for BYD America, says the company expects to sell 200 electric buses this year in the U.S., creating competition for a nascent growth industry.

They Look Different

“It almost looks like an insect,” with its rear-view mirrors as antennae, says Foothill Transit’s spokesperson Felicia Friesema of the 35-foot electric buses that carry riders around Pomona and other eastern parts of Los Angeles County.

She says the diminutive buses look “dare I say it, cute.” Her transit agency was the first in the U.S. to buy electric buses from Greenville, South Carolina–based Proterra, currently the largest U.S. maker of battery-powered buses.

The initial bus did so well in testing, begun in September 2010, that Foothill ordered 15 more and launched the “Let’s Paint the Town Green” ad campaign to welcome their arrival. The buses run 30 miles between charges that take 10 minutes.

Foothill has since ordered two of Proterra’s larger 40-foot model, to be delivered this summer. The extended-range bus can go up to 180 miles between charges that take slightly more than an hour.

The buses don’t only look different on the outside.

“Our vehicles are more like 25,000-pound computers” than conventional buses, says Proterra CEO Ryan Popple, formerly the senior finance director of Elon Musk’s upscale electric-car maker Tesla. Proterra’s typical bus has eight battery packs, lots of circuit boards, and other electronics—but a tiny motor and few, if any, fluids.

“Our biggest vehicle is about four Teslas' worth of batteries, but we can move ten times as many people,” Popple says, noting the average bus can take 30 cars off the road. (See pictures of 12 car-free city zones.)

Now in 15 cities—including San Antonio, Louisville, Nashville, Reno, and Tallahassee—Proterra has seen its orders increase so fast that it’s planning to build a second factory. “We have over a year’s backlog,” Popple says.

Some of Proterra’s business has come courtesy of Uncle Sam.

In February, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration awarded $55 million to ten projects to buy zero-emission buses and related charging stations. Also that month, the Environmental Protection Agency awarded $3 million in rebates to replace 210 older diesel school buses with new ones that are at least 90 percent cleaner.

The U.S. government has also supported the research and development of buses powered by batteries alone or by fuel cells, which chemically convert hydrogen to electricity that’s stored onboard. Most fuel-cell buses are hybrids that contain batteries to capture the energy when the vehicle brakes or starts. (Read about surprising places where fuel cells are working.)

“We’re not sure which technology will be the best,” Van Amburg says, noting electric-only buses are further along in development but fuel-cell versions could offer longer driving ranges. He says the future will depend on use and price.

They Pose a Price Challenge

Cost looms as the biggest obstacle. A typical diesel bus costs about $450,000, while electric models can cost nearly twice as much. The difference can be substantial for cash-strapped transit agencies, especially at a time of low gasoline prices.

Van Amburg says transit officials want long-term price stability, not the unpredictable fluctuations of fossil fuels. Also, over a bus’s typical 12-year life span, he says, zero-emission vehicles will cost a lot less to operate. So, compared to diesel buses, he expects electric ones to be cost-competitive within three years and fuel-cell ones within seven years.

Given their lower maintenance costs, Popple says his Proterra buses are already competitive. Because of the declining cost of key components such as batteries, and early federal funding that allowed him to scale up production, he says their sticker price has fallen from $1.2 million in 2010 to $700,000 today.

Of course, any potential savings—whether financial or environmental—depend on the local price and source of electricity. Skeptics say electric vehicles do little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions if their juice comes from coal-fired power plants.

Van Amburg says even in those areas, however, electric buses benefit the environment, because their drivetrains are so much more efficient. A typical diesel bus gets about four miles per gallon, but an electric one gets the equivalent of 20 miles per gallon.

While more companies elbow to gain market share in the growing industry, cities are showing off their zero-emission buses with electric paint colors and exterior labels such as “battery electric.”

“Some people drive out to Pomona just to ride the bus,” Friesema says of the technologically inquisitive. For regular riders, she says the transition to the “Ecoliner” fleet has been seamless.

The story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

On Twitter: Follow Wendy Koch and get more environment and energy coverage at NatGeoGreen.

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