Buses are expected to be the fastest growing segment of electric heavy-duty vehicles in the near future.

On Wednesday they got a big push when Burlingame, Calif., electric bus maker Proterra opened a new factory in the City of Industry, just east of Los Angeles.

“Manufacturing these electric buses in California creates good jobs and cleans up the air,” said California Gov. Jerry Brown at the plant opening.

Proterra’s new factory was funded in part by a $3-million grant from the California Energy Commission, which doles out $100 million each year to spur green innovation in a transportation system that currently accounts for 36 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The company said the factory is capable of building 400 electric buses annually in its 100,000-square-foot space. It will employ 60 workers by the end of the year and about 100 by the end of 2018, the company said.

“As car culture wanes and more communities embrace 21st century, multi-modal transit, California has a unique opportunity to lead the country in this market transition,” said Ryan Popple, Proterra’s chief executive.

Brown said California wants to get rid of “dirty buses” by encouraging “the invention and commercialization of clean buses.”

Proterra employee assembles an electric bus

Proterra employee assembles an electric bus at the company's factory in the City of Industry, Calif. (Photo: Proterra)

California has set a goal to reduce those emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. Electrification of all vehicle types, including buses, is a key component of the emissions reduction plan.

California’s open-door policy for electric-vehicle innovators has encouraged a spate of investment in electric bus manufacturing.

While the market for electric buses is currently small, there is growing competition among manufacturers.

BYD Co., based in China, has built a factory in Lancaster, Calif., to produce electric buses and trucks. It has a deal to supply 20 electric shuttle buses to the University of California, Irvine, and has deals with about a dozen transit agencies and other organizations. The plant employs 600 workers and has already built 113 buses, said Andy Swanton, vice president of the BYD Truck division.

In addition to BYD, other electric bus competition includes Ebus, a California manufacturer; Green Power Motor Co., a Canadian electric bus maker with a U.S. subsidiary in California; and New Flyer Industries, a major conventional bus maker that has branched into electric powertrain offerings as well. New Flyer is headquartered in Winnipeg, Canada, but has extensive U.S. facilities.

Situated 30 miles east of Los Angeles, Proterra’s new Southern California factory will build emissions-free buses for West Coast transit agencies, including the Los Angeles Department of Transportation as  the agency moves to replace its 2,200 natural gas buses with electrics by 2030, and Foothill Transit, which serves 22 cities from downtown Los Angeles and which put its first electric bus into service in 2010.

Foothill Transit will buy Proterra’s first electric bus capable of traveling 254 miles per charge when it comes off the City of Industry factory floor next month. It currently operates a Proterra electric bus that can travel 35 miles per charge and fully recharge in seven minutes while passengers are boarding, said Roland Cordero, Foothill Transit’s maintenance director.

“We’ve committed to go 100 percent electric by 2030,” said Doran Barnes, Foothill Transit’s executive director.

In addition to emissions reductions, electric buses help reduce operating costs. A study from the federal National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that electric buses were eight times more energy efficient than those that ran on natural gas; they also reduced spare parts consumption by 80 percent per mile.

A Proterra electric bus costs about $689,000 after incentives, according to Foothill Transit. A comparable compressed natural gas bus runs about $550,000 and a diesel bus about $490,000, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

A Catalyst Proterra electric bus at the company's factory in City of Industry, Calif.

A Catalyst Proterra electric bus at the company's factory in the City of Industry, Calif. (Photo: Proterra)

Regardless of the manufacturer, it’s government incentives that will speed their adoption, said Antti Lindstrӧm, an analyst with IHS Markit, an industry research firm.

Buses are well-suited for electrification because they combine standardized daily routes that start and end at a central vehicle depot with a charging infrastructure.

Electric propulsion for heavy-duty trucks is more challenging because they carry heavier loads and typically travel long-distance, point-to-point routes. There’s no charging infrastructure for such trucks, and charging times — compared with diesel fueling — slow delivery.

But there’s likely to be crossover technology because most of the large truck manufacturers also produce buses.

Lindstrӧm said people will first see electric trucks in urban areas on routes similar to buses, where they would make regular deliveries, as well as for vehicles with a comparable drive cycle to garbage trucks and street sweepers, where electric buses are sure to be prized for another attribute: They’re quiet.

Read Next: Truck Companies That Don’t Develop Electric Vehicles Will Get Left Behind

About The Author

Susan Carpenter

Susan Carpenter is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles.

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