Electric Buses – a Visit to Proterra

In August, Kathleen and I headed to Los Angeles to attend Climate Reality Leadership Corps training.  Given the GHG and monetary cost of flying across the continent, we looked for other things we could do while we were in town.  Proterra have an assembly plant in the area and I realised it was not that far from where we were going to be staying.  I had met members of the Proterra team when they visited Ottawa with a bus earlier in the year for the EV20018VE conference.  After a few emails to Proterra we arranged a factory tour for the trainees for the day before the training started.

Switching buses away from fossil fuels is a vital part of climate action, municipal bus fleets are significant emitters of GHGs and a source of considerable air pollution.  Here in Ottawa, the bus fleet emits over 160,000 tonnes of CO2 annually and pollutes the city with NOx and particulate matter.  A number of North American transit authorities are planning to either stop buying diesel buses or to phase them out completely between now and 2040 and we can look forward to more TAs joining them over time.

Although the electric bus industry is in its early days in North America, considerable progress has been made in China with something like 400,000 e-buses on the road.  Progress has been far slower in the US and Canada but there are signs that the market is starting to look at future adoption of electric buses.  Proterra has competition from BYD’s California operation, New Flyer, Nova and Green Power.  Proterra is also working with Alexander Dennis on double deckers.  Proterra has orders for, or, has delivered about 344 buses.  Recently, Proterra received an investment from Daimler  that has resulted in cooperation with Thomas on an electric school bus.

On the day of the tour we caught a train from downtown LA to the City of Industry. Proterra picked us up from the station with a brand new bus, for many of the trainees this was their first time on an electric bus.  As happened the last time I rode a Proterra bus, I nearly fell over when the bus accelerated away from a light, I should learn to hang on, this is not your grandpa’s bus!

Proterra designed the bus from the ground up allow them to optimise the design and get the weight low.  Modern city buses need to have low floors to allow wheelchairs to be loaded easily and to make getting on and off the bus easier for all passengers.  Typically buses are built as body on frame, with a complex steel frame supporting the body panels:

This is the steel frame of a New Flyer bus

 

 

And this is the “frame” of a Proterra bus

By building a composite monocoque body, Proterra has been able to simplify the design of the bus and provide space under the low-floor for the batteries.  The body is built in two parts, top and bottom.  Carbon fibre is used where strength is needed.  There are a lot of similarities with boat building.  Composite boats can last 40+ years whereas bus frames require corrosion repairs and in some cases complete body rebuilds during there 12-18 year life.  The bodies are delivered to the LA plant as complete units.

Brian Miller, Head of Proterra’s LA site shows us battery packs waiting to be installed

The battery packs form part of the bus structure when they are installed.  Proterra has considered the battery lifecycle and the packs can be stacked for use in a second life power storage solution.  In many electricity markets, including Ontario, having power storage available at the bus depot can significantly reduce the cost of charging.

A bus in production for Yosemite National Park

The front and rear suspensions are bolted directly to the body.

The production line was full the day we were there.  Proterra have a backlog of orders and they are looking to speed up production.  I asked how many hours they take to build the bus and the targets, the plant manager had the numbers on where they stand and where they want to be.

Proterra is in the process of setting up a second line in the same space, having recovered some space from a tenant in the building.

Brian Millar and Lee Wixom point out the finer points of building buses

Our hosts were generous with their time and very open.  Some of Proterra’s leadership has worked at Tesla and there are similarities between the companies.  Both are start-ups with no fossil fueled baggage, both are based in Silicon Valley.

Happy Climate Reality Leadership Trainees

Our group of trainees were happy to be given a really good introduction to electric buses. Seeing how they are built and how much simpler they are than a diesel bus, was eye opening for all of us.  I work around buses everyday and Proterra has a really interesting value proposition that goes beyond just swapping the power source but looks towards a future where buses are just simpler and lower maintenance.

Proterra dropped us back at the station in the City of Industry and spent even more time answering questions and showing features of the bus while we waited for the train.

Thanks go out to TJ Nass, Brian Millar and Lee Wixom for hosting and to Michael Hennessy and Steve O’Neil for setting up the visit.  A couple of days later, Ryan Popple, Proterra’s CEO was one of the presenters at the Climate Reality Leadership training.  Ryan was not there to promote Proterra but to take part in a much wider climate discussion and it was clear from his words that climate action is one of the major motivators of the management of Proterra.

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Aesthetic argument against windmills…really?

Riding a bicycle all day long for a week, along the shores of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, gave me plenty of time for contemplation. Cruising along the back roads and trails of Ontario’s seemingly endless shoreline, I really appreciated the beauty of this province. It is outstanding, and well worth preserving.

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I guess not everyone will agree on exactly what is beautiful and what is not…but when it comes to the NIMBY’s argument that windmills are an eyesore, I just don’t get it. After seeing the likes of the Darlington Nuclear Plant, the Lennox I & II Plants, the Durham Regional Energy Centre and all the other power generation plants that dot the shores of Lake Ontario, windmills are a huge improvement, at least to my eyes, not to mention to my lungs!

 

How many armed guards do you need for a windmill? Personally, I find this pretty disturbing

Sign outside Darlington Nuclear Plant

 

And how much CEM data monitoring do we need to do on a windmill? The answer is NONE!

 

Sign outside the Durham York Energy Centre showing ongoing emissions monitoring results

 

How attractive is this new Lennox II natural gas plant that is going in near Bath Ontario, right beside the original plant?

Lennox II natural gas plant construction site

 

Lennox Natural Gas Plant, with a field of transmission towers extending off into the distance

 

As compared to the view across the street from it, where you can see the windmills on Amherst Island behind Matthew, off in the distance.

Matthew with windmills of Amherst Island in the distance

 

Or to this construction site at the White Pines Project in Prince Edward County (the one that Doug Ford recently cancelled). The footprint is a fraction of the size and the disruption to the environment next to nil. Farming continues all around it.

White Pines Project windmill ready for assembly

 

We all want and need electricity to sustain our lifestyles. Can you imagine if the aesthetics argument had been considered in the early years of developing our country? There most certainly would be no trans-Canada railway, no St. Lawrence seaway (imagine anyone trying to flood out dozens of towns in order to build that nowadays?), and most certainly none of these massive power generation plants and transmission towers. But the decision-makers of the day went ahead with major projects for the advancement of society as a whole, and as a result we have the infrastructure we rely on today. If we can (and did) get used to the look of these power plants and transmission towers in our back yards, then we can and will get used to windmills just the same way. And breathe a lot easier for it!

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e-Touring in Quebec

Over 4 days in June we traveled from our home in Ottawa to Baie-Trinité on the North shore of the St Lawrence and back. The journey was a great chance to look at how the charging network in Quebec is deployed and to look at how the rest of Canada can learn from Quebec’s experience.  The North shore or Côte-Nord is a vast, sparsely populated area with about 1% of Quebec’s population.

Over the 4 days we drove up and back with a stop in Quebec City in both directions. Each day was about 500km, with two Level 3 fast charges each day.

The Quebec charging network is impressive, The Electric Circuit has about 115 Level 3 fast chargers in Quebec and Eastern Ontario. The chargers have all been deployed strategically, mainly on highways with good spacing. Many of the stations have a level 2 charger as a backup. At heavily used locations 2 or more fast chargers have been installed.

Electric Circuit’s Charger Network

The conditions for the drive were very good, just about perfect temperatures and low winds, allowing our e-Golf to excede her rated range of 201 kms.  On the way to Quebec City we stopped at Galeries d’Anjou, a Shopping Centre in the east end of Montreal (Click on the link for the Plugshare information on the charger). We arrived with 22kms left on the Guess-O-Meter (GOM) after about 203 km.  It was dinner time, and by the time we had found the food court and eaten the finest fast food available, the car was charged.

The Guess-O-Meter showing an optimistic 262 km range

The next stop was at Roulez Électrique in Trois-Rivieres, a run of about 125 km. Another 125 km later we stopped for the night at Château Repotel Henri IV in Quebec City.  The hotel had one Level 2 charger which provided a full charge overnight.  Hotels are increasingly providing chargers to their guests, As anyone with an EV will strongly prefer to charge overnight, this is a good business move.  Tesla offers a “Charging Partners Program” to provide discounted or free chargers to hotels and similar places.  This program will provide both Tesla and regular Level 2 chargers to suitable properties.

After a quick stop in St Anne de Beaupré to pick up coffee, we headed off to our first charging stop at Saint-Siméon, a distance of about 182 km.  St Anne would be a great spot for a charger, but the Church does not seem to be up to speed yet.  Past St Anne, the geography changes, you are no longer in the relatively flat country that stretches from Windsor to Quebec City.  The terrain becomes much more three-dimensional, with rolling hills and great views of the St Lawrence.

Saint-Siméon is a great example of how to do a charging station right, located at the tourist information centre in the village, with toilets on-site.  The station has a Level 2 as backup and is prewired so that another Level 3 fast charger can be added when it is needed.   The only thing missing was a little coffee shop.

Sometimes things are not as they should be.  The next charger from Saint-Siméon is at Forestville, a 135 km run.  Sadly this charger was not working, but thankfully this was clear from Plugshare.  So the next available charger is at Ville de Ragueneau about 207 km from Saint-Siméon.  Thankfully, this was in range, we had over 260km on the GOM.  The drive to Ragueneau was great, nice roads, a ferry and lots of great views. The only downside was the hills. EVs don’t use a lot more going up and down hills, but the GOM will guess that the big hill you are going up will continue forever and show a big drop in range.  This is restored as you come down the hill, so other than creating some range anxiety, it all works out in the end. It would be nice to have the GOM look at the elevation and give better numbers, but Alice does not have a built in nav system, we use Android Auto which needs an EV mode, but that’s another story.

The charger at Ragueneau came into view with about 25 km left on the GOM and all was well.  The picture at the top of this post was taken there. Another tourist information location with toilets, a park, right on the shore.  After a quick stop in Baie-Comeau, we got to Baie-Trinité in the afternoon.

We stayed overnight at a friends house so we had 16 hours of Level 1 charging before we left on the return trip via Quebec City with a GOM of about 160 km.  We stopped at Ragueneau for a full charge as the car was heavier and we had a bit of a headwind.  We arrived at Saint-Siméon with 32 km on the GOM.

We stayed overnight at the Hotel Chateau Laurier in Quebec City, taking advantage of one of the 4 charging stations they have in their parking.

In the morning we played tourist in Quebec City and had crepes for lunch.  Heading home in the afternoon we stopped at Baie-de-Maskinongé, a highway service centre that turned out to be on the eastbound lanes adding a few kms to the trip.  The last stop was at Rigaud. The weather was warm and this stop saw our charging speed drop to about 20kW or about 122 km/h.  This delayed us by about 20 minutes.  This was the same behaviour seen by Tesla Bjorn in his e-Golf test drive.  I have now got an OBDeleven so I can monitor the battery temperatures and all the other charging parameters, but given that it took 4 long days for this to happen  rather than the few hours it took Bjorn, I am not too concerned.

Much of Quebec is now easily accessible to almost all EVs, at least in the summer and is a great place to tour.  New Brunswick and  Nova Scotia have growing networks and travel from Ottawa to Halifax and beyond will be very simple by next year.  The charging network is designed with the right spacing of chargers, with capacity added where needed.  Quebec should be used as a model for other provinces.

Trip Statistics:

Total Distance 1964 km
Total Energy 299 kWh
Total Cost $77.65
Charging on the road 6:23 hours
Level 3 Charges 8
Level 2 Charges 3
Level 1 Charges 1
GHG Emissions Avoided 295 kg

You can look at the detailed data here.

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Christmas Holiday in Europe

We spent the last couple of weeks visiting Germany and the UK to see friends and family.  Though this was not an EV related trip we did see some things of note.

In Germany we saw an e-Golf in a dealer showroom. We drove by on a Sunday so we could not check to see if it was sold or not, but it might point to better availability in Germany than we have here in Canada.  We saw a few EVs on the road, Teslas mainly.

We headed to the UK for Christmas with family.  We picked up my sister from Liverpool airport and on the way to my parent’s place we stopped at Burtonwood Motorway Services on the M62 between Liverpool and Manchester.  As with most services in the UK, Ecotricity has installed a pair of L3 chargers supporting CHAdeMO and CCS, with a side of Type 2 AC.  The standards as Renault has high power Type 2 charging on the Zoe, rather than the CHAdeMO of the Leaf, despite Renault owning a controlling interest in Nissan.  There is great video on how the Ecotricity chargers work here.  There is a new 8 bay Supercharger on the other side of the car park that is about to be commissioned.  Installing charging at service areas is an obvious and needed addition, sadly, despite all the service areas in Ontario being owned by the province, there has been no progress on this here.

The UK has fines for ICEing, which is great.  Quebec now has similar rules.

We saw our first electric bus in Manchester. Manchester has a free shuttle bus service in the city centre with at least 3 pure electric buses joining a fleet of diesel-electric hybrids in 2014.

Electric buses make so much sense, Shenzhen has a 16,000 strong fleet of electric buses, more cities should move away from diesel.

In addition to free electric shuttles, Manchester also benefits from the Brompton hire system.  For £3.50 a day you can rent a Brompton, which is a great deal. This dock is at Manchester Piccadilly rail station.  The Bromptons act as the last mile solution.

Seeing integrated transportation options like this in the UK, which has a far more complicated model with many private companies and funding agency shows how far behind we are in Ontario with a much simpler political landscape.

We rounded out our trip to Manchester to two monuments to Vimto, ruiner of many carpets and to Alan Turing, founding father of Computer Science.

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