Reliability problems stall transition to electric buses

By: - August 31, 2021 6:01 am

Ted Manteuffel, a bus driver in Duluth, says he enjoys driving electric buses more than diesel despite their technological limitations. Photo by Henry Pan/Minnesota Reformer.

DULUTH — Ambitious plans to electrify Minnesota transit bus fleets have thus far run headlong into technological problems.

For several years, Duluth and the Twin Cities transit systems have been testing electric buses in an effort to reduce their carbon footprint and air pollution. For the most part, they’re a hit among riders and drivers.

“They’re alright, [a] little more comfortable and a little roomy,” said Cruz Mendoza, a high school teacher, as he rode a bus on his way to a Goodwill in Duluth.

Although the ride is smooth, the transition has been anything but. Duluth recently resolved an array of problems, while Metro Transit’s fleet has been grounded since March of this year because of ongoing problems with their chargers. Electric buses in both cities also can’t go as far as a diesel bus in freezing winters, according to transit officials in Duluth, the Twin Cities and Winnipeg.

South Carolina-made Proterra buses were failing on steep hills in Duluth. The buses have experienced cracked chassis that forced Philadelphia’s transit agency to mothball their share of Proterras, although both the manufacturer and the Duluth Transit Agency say the cracks are cosmetic.

Proterra spent years working with Duluth — which has procured seven electric buses — to address the issues, embedding a technician in Duluth for weeks to fix the problem.

“Proterra has been very good to work with. We partnered with their engineering to come up with solutions,” said Duluth Transit Authority General Manager Rod Fournier. Proterra used what they learned to develop a new version of their electric bus, which will eventually make its way to Metro Transit in two years.

Ted Manteuffel, who has been a Duluth Transit driver for a year and a half, likes the electric buses. “They’re easier to drive,” Manteuffel said as he drove one. “I drive the Gilligs [their conventional buses] a bit more, [driving a Proterra is] a nice change of pace.”

A Proterra electric bus in Duluth. Photo by Henry Pan/Minnesota Reformer.

Duluth’s electric buses, which are shaped like potatoes, are recognizable because they’re different from the buses that make up the rest of Duluth’s fleet. They’re wider, roomier, have more seats, and even have a rear window so riders can look out to see if the bus they desperately need to transfer to is following behind.

Metro Transit’s electric buses are different, manufactured by St. Cloud-based New Flyer. They look like — and drive similarly to — some of the agency’s accordion buses, except they ride smoother and have an HVAC grille in place of the rear window.

They were bought for the C Line, which runs between downtown Minneapolis and Brooklyn Center Transit Center on Penn Avenue N., but have been sidelined since March because of ongoing design and manufacturing problems with their chargers. The chargers, which can either plug into or connect to the roof of the bus from above, were to be replaced to allow the buses to return to service in August 2021.

Brian Funk, Metro Transit’s chief operating officer, said at a recent Met Council meeting that the chargers are still being tested at the factory, and that they do not know when the electric buses will return to service.

To ensure they have enough buses for the C Line, the agency had to divert five existing diesel buses from routes serving the rest of the metro. The agency insists it hasn’t affected transit service overall.

The electric buses also can’t go as far as a conventional diesel bus, especially during the winter. Before Duluth’s buses were installed with diesel-powered heaters, the buses experienced a 60% loss in range on cold days because battery life was being used to heat the bus.

For Metro Transit, the electric buses lost 40% of their range in the winter. Any electric bus that operates in the state can’t truly be zero emissions for the foreseeable future, as both Duluth and Metro Transit’s electrics use diesel-fueled heaters to minimize the battery range loss.

Further complicating the transit agencies’ transition to electric is cost. Electric buses, which can cost more than $1 million each, are more than twice as expensive as diesel buses.

But because of the technological limitations of electric buses, it’s not as simple as swapping out one diesel bus for an electric one. Both agencies believe they would need to buy around three electric buses to do the same job that a single diesel bus can do.

Both agencies ruled out purchasing electric buses powered by overhead wires; Duluth because of cost, Metro Transit because it wants the flexibility of deploying its buses across all routes.

A passenger exits a C Line bus in north Minneapolis. The line included electric buses until they had to be sidelined to resolve charging problems, forcing the agency to draw buses from elsewhere in its fleet. Photo by Henry Pan/Minnesota Reformer.

Winnipeg was one of the first cities to operate electric buses, but is not currently. That city decided that a fleet of buses fueled by hydrogen fuel cells — created by splitting water molecules with an electric current — may work better for their needs, in conjunction with electric buses later on.

 

Rarely discussed is where the electricity for the buses come from. Although they emit very little greenhouse gases, the electricity used to power the buses is often generated with fossil fuels; both Duluth and Metro Transit’s electric buses are powered with at least half of the source coming from renewable resources.

Advocates remain convinced electrification is the way to go. They flooded the Met Council in March with comments supporting the purchase of electric buses after learning Metro Transit planned to move forward with buying roughly 140 diesel buses over the next five years. The comments addressed one theme: Reducing pollution that contributes to climate change.

The diesel plan eventually passed, however, and the first of the buses rolled off the assembly line in July.

The agency defended the decision, saying their first priority is reliable transit service.

“First and foremost, transit needs to deliver customers to their destinations. As [diesel is] a known and reliable technology, the agency can deliver a service schedule and improve our service to our customers,” said spokesperson Laura Baenen. “As the infrastructure to support (electric buses) are still currently unreliable, the costs are not quite justified.”

Despite their unreliability, Metro Transit isn’t giving up on electric buses. In late June, they received a $4.2 million federal grant to buy eight more electric buses to run on their local routes.

State lawmakers, concerned about high rates of asthma and other respiratory illnesses in low-income areas like parts of north Minneapolis, continue to push for electrification. Rep. Fue Lee, DFL-Minneapolis, sponsored legislation this past session to require the Met Council, which oversees Metro Transit, to devise a plan to transition to zero emissions. The plan may be used by greater Minnesota transit agencies, including Duluth, as a blueprint for transitioning.

“It’s important we invest in electric buses to ensure residents thrive and live and breathe the air they live in,” Lee said of the legislation he sponsored. “My community should not die from their only source of getting around because they are transit dependent.”

Metro Transit may also get help from Xcel Energy to buy more electric buses. The utility proposed to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to rebate up to $65 million to Metro Transit for the electric buses it buys. Schools and other transit agencies in Xcel’s service area, such as St. Cloud and Mankato, would also be eligible for up to $35 million in rebates.

Duluth will also hold off on more electric buses for now, especially as more manufacturers enter the market. “We are going to be 100% electric, but we don’t feel on the [winter] climate and our service we’re ready to do that yet,” said Fournier.

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Henry Pan
Henry Pan

Henry Pan (pronouns: They/He/佢/他) is a Twin Cities-based journalist, cartographer and photographer passionate about human interests and all things transportation. They have a background in urban planning, a disdain for Minnesota Nice, and a penchant for solitude, transit and bicycle joyrides.

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