Mountain Express lines up a winter demo for an electric bus

A really quiet bus coming in February

[  by Mark Reaman  ]

To see firsthand how an electric vehicle (EV) bus would work in the North Valley, the Mountain Express (MX) has lined up a mid-winter demonstration for such a vehicle. For three days in February, you will be able to ride the Proterra ZX5 Transit Bus between Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte. 

Mountain Express managing director Jeremy Herzog said the demo is another step to transitioning to a greener fleet of vehicles, but he admits the transition won’t happen overnight.

“Reducing the carbon footprint of our community is one of the three guiding principles in our strategic plan and heavily influences everything we do,” he explained. “I think the EV buses will eventually perform better, operate more quietly, normalize our fuel costs and ultimately allow us to put a better product out there for our residents and visitors alike. At the same time that I am excited about the EV bus, I am also conscious of the barriers too, and that MX doesn’t have the current funding levels to do everything we aspire to do. So, we’re being pragmatic about when the right time to take the leap is, and this demo is a really good step on that journey.”

The demo will take place Monday, February 13 through Wednesday, February 15. Herzog said Monday will focus on shop and driver training, with some exploratory Town Shuttle runs in the afternoon. He also hopes to partner with other entities in town to make this portion of the demo a community focused event, that “generates some buzz.” The bus will hit the road for passengers on Tuesday and Wednesday to gather some hard data about its performance under the current town shuttle route.

Herzog admits that there are issues running EV buses in cold climates at high altitude but that is one reason to bring the bus up to the area. “We will be looking at its range. And how safely it operates on our very snowy streets. We also want anecdotal feedback from drivers, mechanics and passengers. The ability for the bus to meet our range requirements has always been the biggest barrier to adoption,” he said. “Range has been improving every year, as the new technology continues to mature. Based on the performance of the same vehicle in other mountain towns, we think this vehicle will come in around 180 – 220 miles of range. Every mountain town operator I know of uses diesel heaters for the passenger cabin so that the electric power remains focused on the drive train.”

Electric buses are being used in a number of mountain communities and Herzog has been keeping an eye on how they work and how they have been improving. He noted that federal grants will keep the local costs affordable, but he said it is not as simple as throwing an EV on the road and plugging it in at night. “The biggest cost barriers are actually the organizational changes we would need to make to effectively deploy the new technology,” he explained. “It’s not just the bus … it’s the charging infrastructure, ideally on route AND at the shop, the charging management software, the telemetrics software, the re-tooling of the maintenance shop, the re-training of our maintenance staff, continual coordination with our local utility and a handful of other things. All of this would require further investment in MX staff positions, that we just simply don’t have the budget to support at the moment. With battery degradation to factor in as well, the total cost of ownership over the state mandated 12-year life cycle of a bus just hasn’t been proven out yet.

“Through my leadership position on the Colorado Electric Vehicle Coalition, if there is a bus out in the mountain west, I am pretty clued into how it has performed,” Herzog continued. “In towns where the local municipalities have invested heavily in the entire ecosystem to make the vehicle work, like Park City, UT, they are doing very well. In towns that have opted for the “let’s just buy a bus and see it how works out approach,” the results have frankly not been that great. We’re absorbing their lessons learned and factoring that into our approach to the same opportunity.”

The Mountain Express board of directors is very supportive of moving to electric vehicles when it makes sense. Herzog said the board has been receptive to his feedback about the increased hard costs of the vehicle and impacts to staffing costs of the EV buses. He said the board has directed him to first focus on the Whetstone Facility project with limited available capital reserves and a very tight annual operating budget.

“The ability for MX to move to EV buses is very much tied to our ability to build a new facility in the Whetstone Industrial Park,” he said. “Our current facility just cannot support that technology at any meaningful scale. We applied to the FTA (Federal Transit Administration) Bus and Bus Facilities Program for financial assistance last spring but were not successful. The feedback was that we needed to be further along in our adoption of EV buses to be successful in our application for the facility moving forward. This demo, along with a hopeful EV Transition Plan in 2023, is all part of telling that story more effectively next year.”

Proterra regional sales director Ivy Compton said the company has conducted similar demonstrations in other mountain resort towns including Winter Park and Steamboat Springs. The electric buses are currently operating in Breckenridge and Avon, and with the Summit Stage and Eagle County.

“A Proterra demo helps agencies match the on-board energy storage and drivetrain configuration to meet route requirements, total daily mileage and layover options,” she said. “Carrying up to 738 kWh of battery capacity, Proterra vehicles have the flexibility to serve everything from local circulator routes to longer distance intercity routes. Following a demo, we are able to provide key metrics such as: efficiency, diesel equivalent fuel economy, total energy consumed, estimated range with one full charge on an average hot and cold day and system energy recaptured by regen. Demos provide a great opportunity for transit agency operators, maintenance techs and key stakeholders to see firsthand how these buses will perform within their community. This is also an opportunity for the community to ask questions about the technology and really engage the public with their local agency by sharing a pathway to move forward with clean, zero-emission transportation for all.”

Proterra will be bringing three staff members to guide the demo and Herzog said the transit agency “is very appreciative of their efforts to help plan and execute this project for our community.”

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