After delays and much anticipation from local climate and transit advocates, Asheville deployed five new zero-emission battery-electric city buses on June 1. The buses promise to reduce the city’s carbon footprint by 270 tons per year — a third of Asheville’s annual target for emissions cuts — and provide a cleaner, quieter experience for riders and passersby.
“I think it’s exciting to think about a future where we have cleaner air and where we have quieter transportation, and certainly one that’s utilizing few resources and one that can reduce our carbon footprint,” says Keith McDade, chair of the city’s Sustainability Advisory Committee on Energy and the Environment.
“There’s no engine, there’s no tailpipe, there’s not exhaust, so if you’re waiting at the bus stop, you’re not going to hear that engine roaring, like you would with some of our other buses,” adds Assistant Transportation Director Jessica Morriss.“It’s a great environmental thing, for transit in particular. It’s also just a great thing for us to have in terms of maintaining a healthy overall fleet and providing high-quality service.”
But the addition of the new vehicles hasn’t been entirely seamless. Questions linger about the buses’ capability to keep up with their diesel and hybrid counterparts on Asheville’s demanding roads. And it remains uncertain whether the city’s goal of transitioning to a 100% electric fleet by 2030 is feasible when current funding for transit has fallen short of the goals set in the Transit Master Plan.
According to a May 29 city press release, the buses, built by Greenville, S.C.-based Proterra, have undergone “thorough testing” since their first arrival in December to determine the capabilities of their battery-electric technology. Features such as speed and travel range have been shown to fluctuate depending on temperature, weight and changes in elevation.
“If you’re driving on a lot of hills, you’re using more energy,” notes Morriss. “Another variable that comes into play is the load, or how many people are on the bus. With a full bus, you’re using more energy.”
Freezing or hot conditions also impact battery life and performance. “As you can imagine, it’s when you put all of those variables together [that] there’s different outcomes. One day, a bus might be able to run on the S3 route all day long if conditions are good,” Morriss explains. “If it’s cold outside, it might not be able to, and it might need a recharge at some point during the day.”
Battery issues aside, the new buses also measure 35 feet, 5 feet longer than most of the buses in ART’s 23-bus fleet. That extra length prevents the vehicles from making the tight turns needed to navigate many of Asheville’s narrow and winding roads. Morriss says Proterra only had longer models available and the purchase was not an oversight by the city.
And while the cost of the buses was largely offset by grant funding from the Federal Transit Administration, City Council members voted on June 11 to spend an additional $216,000 on new fareboxes and software — “because staff thought fareboxes from the old buses could be reused in the new buses,” according to a staff report — as well as cover the new vehicles’ registration fees, design/construction costs for charger installation, acceleration and brake pedal extenders and GPS trackers. The increase brings the total investment from the city to just over $830,000 for all five buses.
Working out the kinks
Matt Horton, chief commercial officer at Proterra, says that while battery-electric technology remains imperfect, demand for electric vehicles continues to grow worldwide. Since the first Proterra electric buses hit the streets of Los Angeles in 2010, 90 cities across the U.S. have added the buses to their fleets and are also experiencing the growing pains of the new technology.
“There are lots and lots of cities that have been through this process already, which is really helpful. We’ve definitely learned a lot of lessons over the years,” Horton says.
Cities that purchase Proterra’s electric buses are required to provide additional training for drivers to mitigate some of the issues related to range. That includes teaching drivers to manage the bus’s regenerative brakes, which increase range by redirecting energy to the battery while the driver slows the bus.
“If you do that right, you’re going to recapture a lot of energy that will enable you to drive a long distance during the day,” Horton says. “If the bus driver isn’t used to it and they’re jamming on the accelerator and then jamming on the brakes, you’re going to be a lot less energy efficient, and that’s going to impact your range.”
Route planning also plays a major role in getting the most out of the vehicles. Currently, Asheville’s electric buses are only deployed on three routes: S3 and S6, both of which run down Hendersonville Road, and 170, which follows U.S. 70 to Black Mountain. All three routes were chosen for their relatively flat, straight topography that maximizes range and can accommodate the buses’ length.
McDade suggests that transit and climate activists should manage expectations of new technologies and be prepared to modify and adjust as needed while companies work through the issues.
“Adapting to our context is one of the great challenges of moving toward sustainability,” McDade says. “We can understand a lot [about the technology], and there are going to be things that we have to figure out along the way.”
While the city was scheduled to add three more electric buses by the end of the year, Morriss says those plans have changed. Asheville will now wait to purchase new vehicles until improvements in the technology increase bus capabilities.
“It’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Morriss maintains about the delay. “I think that what we’ve decided at this time is that the electric vehicle technology in general, but also electric bus technology, is changing very rapidly, so we are pressing pause at this time so we can continue to evaluate other [options] as new technology emerges.”
Horton agrees that the technology is quickly evolving, noting that Proterra constantly seeks to update features and improve materials to make its buses lighter in weight. “We see batteries that have more energy storage, and our buses are getting more and more efficient over time,” he says.
While the purchase of additional electric buses is currently in limbo, on April 23, Asheville City Council authorized City Manager Debra Campbell to apply for a federal grant to purchase two hybrid electric buses. Transportation Department Director Ken Putnam, who spoke during the meeting, said that transitioning to a fully electric fleet remains a goal but the addition of hybrid buses still represents progress.
“We want to transition, but what we’re trying to do too is anytime we can get an advantage of a grant, we’re trying to apply for it so that we can take care of the immediate need to try to get buses in our fleet,” Putnam said in April.
The city also plans to add two diesel buses to the ART fleet by the end of the year. McDade says he does not consider the shift in vehicle acquisition a setback for the city’s energy goals.
“I think that it’s important to take these kinds of steps. We’re pioneering a new direction,” McDade says. “I think that many of the things that we do on our journey on to 100% renewable [energy], on our journey toward carbon reduction, on our journey toward more sustainability, they’re all going to be small experiments of sorts, because there is no clear road map that others have championed.”