Proterra and the rise of electric buses

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The electric bus maker Proterra has built a new factory in the City of Industry, in order to meet a growing demand for electric buses from urban transit agencies.

The Silicon Valley manufacturer is one of several electric bus companies building new buses in Southern California.

According to the LA Economic Development Corporation, there are around ten companies in the Southland that are making and selling electric-powered buses in the region.

Metro is a potential big client with the passage of Measure M. It has the second largest bus fleet in North America with a fleet of 2,248 buses. Currently they are all CNG (Compressed Natural Gas) and they plan on converting the entire fleet by 2030.

One in seven buses manufactured in in United States are sold to a California market.

"We're basically becoming the Detroit of electric transportation because we had the supply chain from the aerospace industry that was supplying those systems in electronics and are now supplying the electric bus an electric car market," said Jeff Joyner, co-chair of the E4 Mobility Alliance, an LA EDC-sponsored Industry Council that's working to bring advanced transportation to the Southland.

Joyner says LA has been able to pivot to e-bus production because the supply chain was already here. The aerospace industry that was supplying electronics systems is now supplying the electric bus and car market. So those same engineers and those same companies are now supplying this advanced transportation industry.

The Chinese electric vehicle and battery manufacturer BYD, which stands for Build Your Dreams, recently expanded its assembly plant in Lancaster (which opened in 2013) and has gained a contract to build zero-emission buses for Metro. Its first customer was the Antelope Valley Transit Authority. Long Beach Transit purchased ten of BYD's all-electric buses.

Proterra, located in the City of Industry, was founded in 2004 and its chief executive is Ryan Popple, a former finance director at Tesla. It's their second facility following a location in South Carolina. And they have said they wanted to manufacture in California because one in seven buses made in the U.S. are sold in California.

Other companies include Complete Coach Works, which retrofits buses with electric powertrains in Riverside; Ebus, which makes fast charging stations for electric buses in Downey; and and traditional bus maker Gillig, based in Livermore, Calif., which offers electric models. There's also New Flyer in Winnipeg, Canada, from which Metro is expected to agree to purchase 35 electric buses at a board meeting later this month.

Foothill Transit led the way by converting to electric buses in Southern California in 2010. The agency operates 17 electric buses, all from Proterra, and has ordered 13 more.

There is a question of just how far these buses can travel on a single charge. Proterra says its latest battery-powered model called the Catalyst E2 can travel about 350 miles a charge. The company says one of its buses went as far as 600 miles on a test track, but that's because the track was flat, with no passengers and no air-conditioning.

Once Metro tests more electric buses, it will have to build in the infrastructure to support the buses, which is a serious investment.

Photo: An electric bus under repair at Proterra (Avishay Artsy)