City Close to Deal to Buy Electric Buses, says Proterra CEO

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Windsor Star/Grace Macaluso

Windsor could see electric buses on city roads as early as next year, Mayor Eddie Francis says. The city began discussions in late summer with Proterra Inc., a Greenville, S.C., manufacturer of electric buses after it became clear that Chinese carmaker BYD, which had been in talks with Windsor for more than a year, failed to meet agreed upon deadlines, said Francis.

“Proterra knew we were interested in electric buses and we sort of fell into each other’s laps,” said Francis, adding that Windsor could become the first Canadian city to electrify its diesel-powered  fleet.

Talks are progressing so quickly that they could lead to a contract this week for Windsor’s purchase of Proterra buses, said Garrett Mikita, CEO of the electric bus company. “It’s quite exciting for Windsor and a great deal for the environment and taxpayers.”

Depending on how each bus is equipped, the price per vehicle would range from $875,000 to $900,000, said Mikita. However, a municipality can expect to recover the cost of a bus through fuel savings alone over a 12-year period, he added. An electric bus has a “600-per-cent cost advantage over diesel and natural gas,” he said.

Proterra buses, which are in use in about seven America cities, would have little trouble, if any, complying with Canadian standards and regulations, said Mikita. His vehicles meet U.S. government standards and have completed an Altoona test cycle, a series of rigorous tests measuring safety, structural integrity, durability, reliability, performance, maintainability, noise, fuel economy, brake and emissions, he added.

“It puts a bus through a durability test to ensure its design and quality will allow a bus to operate for 500,000 miles over 12 years of life,” said Mikita.

Francis  was among a group of city officials  who went on a tour this fall of  Proterra’s plant, which employs more than 100 workers. “They’re doing well,” he said. “They have a good team of executives. Some are from aerospace and some are from automotive.”

Fuel is among the highest costs facing Transit Windsor, which has a fleet of 104 buses.

“The benefits of electrification are numerous,” said Francis. “There’s less wear and tear on the buses, reduced maintenance costs and electric is cheaper than diesel.”

There is the added benefit to the city’s image, he said. “It speaks to our desire to become a  more modern and progressive community. Most people associate electric vehicles which larger cities, like Vancouver. There is an added value to us  from an image perspective.”

Electrification would happen gradually as the city replaces a certain percentage of its fleet annually, he said.

While electrification of Windsor’s transit bus fleet is Francis’s short-term goal, the long-term vision is for a Proterra manufacturing facility to be located in the city, the mayor said.

“It’s our hope that the demand for electric buses will grow to the point that they will need a manufacturing facility in Canada, and given our relationship, we would hope that a facility would be located here.”

Mikita said producing in Windsor would depend on Canadian sales. “We welcome the idea,” said Mikita. “We think Windsor is a terrific place to build a Canadian presence given the depth of automotive skill set, which is applicable to bus manufacturing.”

Councillor Bill Marra, who serves the head of the Transit Windsor board, said he supports bringing electric buses to Windsor. But greening the fleet  should be just one part of an overall plan to improve the city’s transit system, he said.

“We need to improve the routes. We need to have more buses on the road. We have to improve the age of our fleet,” said Marra.

Investments are needed now to improve Transit Windsor’s day-to-day operations, such as shorter wait times and increasing the number of buses on busy routes, he added.

Marra also is pushing for a  regional transit system that would extend Transit Windsor service to the county.