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Buying Local: Transit Agency Finds Partner in Local E-Bus Maker

Even smaller transit agencies — like Greenlink Transit in South Carolina — are phasing out diesel and making the switch to electric buses. That switch is much easier to make when the bus-maker is in your backyard, officials say.

Proterra Bus
When a transit agency decides to make the transition to electric buses, having the bus-maker in your backyard certainly helps.

Greenville, S.C., is home to the East Coast manufacturing facility of Proterra, one of the largest electric bus manufacturers in North America, making logical sense for the company to establish good relations with the local transit agency.

In 2019, Greenlink Transit received its first electric buses — made by Proterra — a purchase funded in part by a $1.35 million federal transit grant. Four of the agency’s 20 full-size buses are electric, with five more on the way.

“We probably did have an easier time with deployment because Proterra is here. So if we had a question, it was easy for us to say, 'Hey, can you help?’ And there’s engineers and technicians who live here and I guess there’s just been a lot of good things that have come out of that,” said James Keel, director of public transportation at Greenlink Transit, the transit agency serving Greenville.

“There’s a big interest in transitioning away from diesel as much as we can,” said Keel.

That transition seems to be following trends nationwide. A new report by CALSTART, a national nonprofit charged with advancing clean transportation technology, found that the number of zero-emission buses (ZEB) funded or on order in the U.S. has grown 66 percent since 2021, totaling some 5,480 full-size buses.

The move from internal combustion engines to electric power is across the board said, Jarrett Stoltzfus, senior director of government relations and public policy at Proterra.

“We have customers of all sizes,” he added. “We have customers that have four buses total, and then we have customers that have hundreds and hundreds.”

“In the past 12 or 13 years I’ve seen this go from like a handful of transit agencies, and kind of like a star in the sky, to a really incredible volume and incredible growth,” said Stoltzfus.

That transition is not effortless, or automatic, Keel noted.

“This began the big learning curve from switching from an all-diesel fleet to having some all-electric buses,” said Keel. “I’m not going to sit here and say it was easy. It certainly wasn’t.”

The biggest learning curve was understanding the key operational and other differences between conventional buses and electric versions, where the bus’ range can be drastically influenced by driver behavior, terrain and climate.

Right-sizing the bus with the route and capacity needs has been an ongoing process, said Keel.

Greenville County is the largest in the state by population. It spans flat lands as well as hillier areas. The terrain “really is on both ends of the spectrum,” said Keel, adding, analysis showed the e-buses are best operated on some of the more urban routes, which also tend to have the highest ridership.

“Having them now for four years we’ve kind of figured out how to balance it, and how to do what with it,” said Keel. “And also, really refined the training program and have been able to give our drivers tips and tricks to be able to perform better, and just make the bus last longer throughout the day.”

The e-bus trend is also helping to power transitions in other vehicle sectors as well, said Stoltzfus, a movement getting an added push from action taken at the state and federal levels to phase out internal combustion engines.

“The direction we’re seeing states going is more and more states bringing a new incentive program online,” said Stoltzfus, pointing to programs like California’s Innovative Clean Transit rule to make transit vehicles zero emission by 2040.

“Directionally, it certainly feels like this is a fundamental pivot, and I would say not just with transit, but I think you’re seeing this across the board with every form of transportation,” Stoltzfus added.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.