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Collaborative strength in local business community is helping drive forward electric vehicle industry

PMG FILE - Brantely DettmerWhile you are driving, riding, biking, or even walking lately, you may notice a new sight on local city streets — an all-electric bus decked out in blue or maybe blue and orange.

It's true. Portland has been at the forefront of the design of electric buses and trucks.

At last month's Westside Economic Alliance (WEA) Breakfast Forum, PGE's CEO Maria Pope, TriMet's General Manager Doug Kelsey, and Daimler Trucks North America's CFO John O'Leary gathered on stage to share the future vision of electric bus and truck fleets. In the parking lot, one of the largest props ever for a presentation was parked — a full-size TriMet electric bus.

I am amazed at how far we have come when it comes to the electric vehicle industry and what this progress means to the communities we serve. There is a collaborative strength in the business community, which was represented on that forum stage. TriMet is a leader in bringing the concept of transit electrification to the public; Daimler has provided breakthrough innovation in the electric vehicle manufacturing sector, and PGE has been hard at work to make sure the supply of energy is plentiful enough to meet the demand to fuel the future of the electric bus and truck fleets.

TriMet is not curbing its enthusiasm for conversion to electric vehicles and is seeing it as an exciting challenge.

Because the region is growing, TriMet will move from a 600-bus fleet to a 900-bus fleet, with the conversion from diesel to electric beginning in 2024. There are lots of hurdles ahead: TriMet needs more garages with the new electric infrastructure, electric buses cost substantially more than diesel buses, and electric buses aren't as reliable yet as diesel ones. We don't know how well electric buses are going to perform in all weather conditions either. For example, many transit agencies have reported issues with electric buses running in snow/ice conditions. We also know that electric buses depend on a highly trained operator. It will be a challenge for an agency like TriMet (which employs more than 1,000 bus operators) to teach everyone to operate electric vehicles, so they are as skilled as they are with diesel buses.

TriMet's GM pointed out his concern for resiliency and reliability. He referred to his thoughts, not as nightmares, but not dreams either. He called these wakemares. Kelsey said, regardless of what's happening, the buses must be rolling by 5 a.m. Pope said PGE could handle the energy demand. She pointed to the fact that most of these vehicles will be charging overnight when the overall power demand is lower. She also said the cost of electric is less than that of diesel fuel.

There is a concern about the life of the batteries storing the energy. With each charge, the battery life is shortened. Kelsey said he believes there will eventually be a secondary or reclaiming market for these batteries.

Every one of these challenges can be overcome. Our brainpower can deliver it, and our planet depends on it. O'Leary said it's all about forward-thinking. The ones leading will be the ones setting the standard. He said Portland has been the center for this type of engineering and is part of the standard setting. TriMet's Young Park, who led the electric bus tour after the forum, talked about the electric bus design he and others have been working on for the past two years or more and how this design is being replicated in buses in other markets, such as Boston.

Kelsey said the direct benefit of electric buses to customers is a quieter ride with no vapor emissions.

The indirect benefit is improved regional air quality. We will achieve reliability with new technologies. We are betting our future on this.

Brantley Dettmer is the Chief Operating Officer of Kaiser Permanente's Westside Medical Center in Hillsboro, and board president of the WEA. Learn more about the WEA at: westsidealliance.org


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