Chinese vehicles pose a challenge to stay charged on road

Photo Credit: COURTESY TRIMET - TriMet picked up and dropped off passengers with the BTD electric bus it road tested in June and July.Portland planners believe more people are going to live in apartments along major transit lines in the future. That’s good for the environment, because it should reduce the number of cars on the road. But there’s one obvious drawback for those new residents — diesel buses are noisy and smelly, simultaneously enhancing and undermining livability wherever they go.

TriMet is hoping to tap a new technology that could reduce that drawback: electric buses. Because they are propelled by electric motors, such buses are relatively quiet and emit no exhaust gases.

TriMet has looked at two different kinds of electric buses in Portland. The first is made by BYD, a Chinese manufacturer. TriMet road-tested one of its buses between June 23 and July 3, including some runs along normal lines with passengers. Aside from a small charging problem that was easily solved, there were no marked driving concerns.

“We believe in electrifying vehicles that are on the road all day, because that’s where you get the biggest reduction in emissions. Consumer vehicles are only on the road about an hour a days; buses are on the road all day long,” says Brendan Riley, BYD’s vice president of fleet sales.

The second bus is made by Proterra, a Greenville, N.C., manufacturer. The company brought one of its electric buses to town last week, where it was displayed on Thursday at the downtown World Trade Center where PGE — a strong supporter of electric vehicles — is headquarters. TriMet then took it to one of their maintenance yards, where drivers and mechanics examined it.

“This is the future of mass transit, and it’s here today,” says Proterra founder Dale Hill.

Grant application pending

The regional transit agency has not bought any electric buses yet. But earlier this year, it submitted a $5,630,800 grant request to the Federal Transit Administration’s Low or No Emission Vehicle Deployment program.

TriMet partnered with BYD and another company, Wireless Advanced Vehicle Electrification, on the grant. If it is approved, TriMet will match the federal funds and buy nine BYD buses and a number of supplemental WAVE charging stations.

TriMet is a little late coming to the electric bus game. They are already being used in a variety of countries and several American cities, such as San Antonio, Texas, and Stanford, Calif. They are part of an increasing movement toward electrifying fleets of service vehicles, including taxis and freight trucks.

Although they can cost twice as much as gas or diesel-powered vehicles, electric vehicles can make up the difference in just a few years by eliminating fuel costs and reducing maintenance costs. Electric motors are much simpler and more reliable than gas or diesel engines, and they don’t require routine tune ups, oil changes and air filter replacements.

TriMet says BYD buses have the potential to substantially reduce operating cost savings, not only compared to its 40-foot diesel buses, but also compared to hybrid and compressed natural gas-powered buses on the market.

BYD buses normally take two to four hours to recharge. But WAVE produces a supplemental charging system that will allow the buses to slightly recharge while in use.

Proterra uses a different charging system — an elevated docking device that connects to the top of the bus and fully recharges its batteries in mere minutes.

Proterra’s new bus costs $825,000, almost twice as much as an equivalent diesel bus. The recharging docks cost an additional $600,000.

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