George Karbowski, director of operations and maintenance at Foothill Transit, concurs with Pezoldt. Although the price of electricity in southern California does not enable as much savings as LINK's—about 68 cents per kilometer for diesel versus about 31 cents per kilometer for electricity—Karbowski says anecdotal evidence suggests the company is saving greatly in other areas.
"Given that our electric buses do not charge in the yard, they are actually available for up to three extra hours each day because they don't have to wait in the refueling line," he says. "Also, a typical diesel bus requires an inspection every 45 days that uses $1,100 in supplies and 10 man-hours. Our Proterra buses take three hours and don't use any filters, oils or spark plugs—or anything like that—and have much lower preventative maintenance costs." Karbowski also attributes lower lifetime brake-associated costs to the regenerative braking system in the bus, which uses the braking force of its electric motor to generate electricity, saving the physical brakes from as much wear and tear.
Although both operators are focused on saving money and increasing operational efficiency as the driving goals of their electric bus programs, they readily tout the green aspects of their projects as well. Aside from having zero tailpipe emissions, both types of buses use some of the cleanest electricity in the world. In Wenatchee more than 96 percent of its power comes from seven dams within 160 kilometers and—at a residential rate of 2.2 cents per kWh—is also some of the cheapest electricity in the country, thanks to the well-established public utility traditions of the region. California already has more than 20 percent of its electricity coming from solar, wind and hydropower, and has set a statewide goal of 33 percent renewable power consumption by 2020. But Foothill has gone even farther by purchasing 100 percent renewable energy credits to provide all the power for its electric buses.
Both transit operators plan on expanding their electric bus service and have received additional grants from the Transit Investments for Greenhouse Gas and Energy Reduction (TIGGER) program—an offshoot of the stimulus package. With an additional $2.5 million from TIGGER, LINK plans to buy five more Ebus trolleys and three additional fast-charging stations. With $10 million more, Foothill plans to buy between nine and 11 additional Proterra buses, resulting in the full electrification of an entire bus route.
Although Foothill and LINK have funded the vast majorities of their projects with federal grant money to this point—and have hedged against the risk inherent in being pioneers with that money—both say the buses and associated equipment are now at the point where they compare very well in terms of up-front costs with purchasing new diesel—or even compressed natural gas–powered buses.
The Ebus trolleys already cost less than comparable diesel-powered ones, and even the larger 12-meter-long Proterra buses carry a reasonable price tag. "Our initial purchase of Proterra buses cost us about $1.2 million each, but it will likely cost us $800,000 each for this next batch," Karbowski says. "Compare that to approximately $650,000 for a compressed natural gas bus and it's getting closer. With higher volume it will likely be completely on par soon."
Early results being what they are, other public transit operators have come knocking with an interest in the emerging technology. According to Pezoldt, Wenatchee's much larger neighbor to the west, Seattle, is learning a thing or two from LINK's experience and plans to invest in the technology in the next couple of years. In California Proterra just inked a deal with the San Joaquin Regional Transit District for two more of its battery-powered buses. Given that the pioneers' experiences have not revealed a downside yet, it's no wonder interest is rising quickly.