Electric bus maker takes on oil

Source: Camille von Kaenel, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Ryan Popple jokes that his first job out of college was in transportation, serving as a U.S. Army officer dealing with tanks in Iraq.

As the 38-year-old CEO and president of electric bus manufacturer Proterra Inc., Popple is still in transportation. But now he’s trying to reduce the country’s dependence on oil and slow global warming by developing a small but growing sector of the market: electric buses.

“The oil problem is No. 1 on my list,” Popple said. “You have to be able to control some of your destiny on something that is literally the lifeblood of your economy.”

Electric buses represent a sliver of the transit vehicles on the road, but their share is growing more rapidly than any other type of bus, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). Federal data show buses account for about 1.2 percent of transportation-related emissions, but they also represent one of the fastest-growing sources of transportation emissions since 1990, following a rise in transit ridership.

Switching to electric fleets could slow that. Transit buses generate slightly more than half the life-cycle emissions of an SUV per passenger mile, according to research cited by the Federal Transit Administration. Electric buses generate less than one-sixth.

As inefficient diesel buses reach retirement age, alternative-fueled vehicles have found more success with transit agencies than with average drivers. Nearly 47 percent of buses in the United States used alternative fuels or hybrid technology in 2015, according to APTA. Electric buses, more expensive than diesel buses, number in the hundreds, adding up to merely 0.2 percent of the fleet.

Popple is ambitious. He hopes that will near 50 percent by 2025.

‘A real light bulb moment’

The polished Harvard Business School graduate and former Tesla Motors Inc. executive is quick to laugh and quick to cite statistics — like the 5 million barrels of oil imported by the United States every day. He said he first became concerned by the country’s dependence on oil while serving in the Army.

“Transportation and energy is a tinder box. … It’s the priority of a lifetime,” he said.

Popple uses the process of elimination to describe his attraction to electric vehicles: Hydrogen is too rare and biofuels too inefficient, he said.

Admirers say Popple has brought technology and startup savviness to Proterra. The only American electric bus manufacturer has now become a less sporty sibling of Tesla.

“Tesla for me was a real light bulb moment,” Popple said. “Electrification is the largest threat to oil, and it’s the biggest opportunity utilities have ever seen.”

Proterra, a privately held company, has received 122 orders so far and is in discussion with nearly half of the country’s transit agencies, Popple said. A South Carolina factory is manufacturing 23 buses right now, and a second facility in Southern California is slated to open by the end of the year.

Currently 63 Proterra buses are riding the streets in places from Reno, Nev., to Louisville, Ky., to Seattle. The sleek 35- or 40-foot-long buses can charge on the go at overhead stations in less than 10 minutes. In ideal testing conditions, a model has gone up to 258 miles on a single charge.

Last week, the company announced its buses had traveled 2 million miles, saving the equivalent of 420,000 gallons of fuel.

Leaving the South to flourish in the West

Popple drives a Tesla Model S with a homemade aftermarket hitch for his bicycle, which he prefers to use to get around.

He started working for the electric vehicle manufacturer in 2007, when the company had fewer than 200 people. Eventually becoming director of finance, he saw the company through the launch of its Roadster sports car and through the $500,000 loan it received from the Department of Energy. He helped steer the company’s initial public offering before leaving in 2010 for venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, where he managed clean transportation technology investments — including Proterra.

Four years later, he became Proterra’s CEO.

Last fall, he moved the company headquarters from Greenville, S.C., where it was founded in 2004, to Burlingame, Calif.

“We wanted to have access to the very latest EV technology,” Popple said. “Silicon Valley has been really good at circuit boards and chips, and EVs are essentially solid-state circuit-based vehicles.”

Tesla, headquartered nearby in Palo Alto, Calif., has spawned an ecosystem of EV innovation, he said. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is conducting cutting-edge research into energy storage and batteries. Apple Inc., based in Cupertino, Calif., is rumored to be developing a car itself, poaching talent off Tesla.

“[The change of headquarters] has been and will prove to be a very good move because California is where this market will take off first and where [Popple] will be able to tap into a lot of the talent that will support the type of technologies he’s developing,” said John Boesel, president and CEO of CALSTART, a California-based clean transportation technology industry group.

Chinese BYD has worldwide impact

Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood sits on Proterra’s board of directors. The company’s main rival is Berkshire Hathaway Inc.-backed Chinese electric car maker BYD Auto Co. Ltd., which has sold hundreds of buses worldwide. Other traditional bus manufacturers like New Flyer Industries Inc. have been developing their own electric models, as have giants like Siemens AG and the Volvo Group. Some startups are making fuel-cell buses.

Popple dismissed concerns that the low oil prices that have generated record-breaking sales of SUVs and trucks could slow his business. Managers of transit fleets take a long-term perspective, he said.

“They can make some long-term decisions because they’re not throwing down money for fuel,” he said. “If they’re smart, they’ll take the savings now and they’ll upgrade.”

He argues the maintenance and fuel costs of a diesel bus can add up to $500,000 a year, while operating an electric bus costs nearly nothing. But a diesel bus goes for about $300,000. Buying a Proterra bus cost more than $1 million a few years ago. Now, the average price for a Proterra bus is around $750,000, though prices can vary.

The driving force behind the price drop lies in cheaper batteries, for which Proterra has a partnership with Toshiba Corp., Popple said.

Federal grants have also helped spur the adoption of electric buses. The Federal Transit Administration’s popular Low or No Emission Vehicle Deployment Program, called LoNo, has helped fund additional purchases of Proterra buses by the Transit Authority of River City in the Greater Louisville area, for example.

Nashville, Tenn., purchased seven Proterra buses in 2014 after Mayor Karl Dean (D) bought an electric car, though the buses were significantly more expensive than diesel buses, said Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority communications director Patricia Harris-Morehead.

“If it were just in California or New York or D.C., people would say, ‘OK, I get it, those cities will take a little bit of risk on an environmentally friendly technology,’ but we’re engaged in a lot of midsized cities, in a lot of states that have zero policy around climate,” Popple said. “The sale is economic at this point.”