Innovation and time drives down the green price tag
Innovation and time drives down the price tag
By Glenn Swain
While many may think the term “green” is as new as “environmentally friendly,” the fact is humans have been tinkering with what could be considered green technology since the 19th Century. For instance in 1899, 90 percent of New York City’s taxi cabs were electric. In that same year and in 1900, electric cars outsold all other types of cars, such as gas and steam-powered vehicles. Windmills played a major role in populating the western frontier.
Consider this: The U.S. could decrease its reliance on foreign oil by 40 percent if one in 10 Americans used public transportation each day. According to the American Public Transportation Association, public transportation in the U.S. saves 4.2 billion gallons of gasoline – more than 11 million gallons per day – and 37 million metric tons of carbon emissions. To match a similar reduction in carbon emissions, every household in New York City, Washington, DC, Atlanta, Denver and Los Angeles combined would have to completely stop using electricity.
Public transportation agencies are now taking bigger steps to go green, certainly more than just offering free rides on Earth Day. Last year the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority began installing a new federally funded solar canopy installation at one of its bus garages. It will be the largest solar canopy installation in Georgia and the second largest in the U.S., and it will significantly off set power usage at the facility. Last April in Lafayette, IN, CityBus broke ground on a wind turbine project. The $2.18 million project will power CityBus facilities with renewable wind energy and reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Meanwhile, Intercity Transit in Olympia, WA continues to enhance its bus stops with the installation of solar lights in bus shelters.
Green is good
So, green is good, on this we can all agree, but what about the costs of going green?
Green technology is really no different than other innovations. Maturity of the product, and mass production all work naturally to bring costs down. Remember the high price tag of VCRs when they first hit the market? Historically, innovation and time whittles down product costs.
In the green bus industry costs are dropping annually in a number of areas, including batteries, composite body construction, and in motor and charging station technology.
“The maturity of the products is increasing, and this is something we’ve been able to take advantage of,” says Voith Product Group Manager Tracey Johnson. “In our energy storage systems we use ultra capacitors instead of batteries. That technology has really seen marked improvements over the last five to 10 years. It’s enabled our product to perform to the level that we expect. If we would have released it a number of years ago the maturity of that energy storage system would not have been there. We’re starting to see the product prove itself in the field. That’s actually the point where it has matured.”
“We have an aggressive cost down program that has already identified a number of areas for cost reduction, and we are just at the beginning of a deep dive on the process,” says Marc Gottschalk, chief business development officer for Proterra, Inc.
Proterra’s engineers have had their hands full trying to lower the cost of the company’s EcoRide BE35. One challenge has been lowering the cost of the typical bus components that have been used for years, such as seats.
“The early production units of certain components that are made specifically for our bus or a relatively small market, like all electric HVAC systems, do not yet have the advantage of price reductions caused by mass production,” Gottschalk says. “However, batteries for example are reducing in price substantially as EVs scale up leads to more price competition.”
Bus and trolleybus manufacturer DesignLine is focused on eliminating the large polluting engine and multi-gear automatic transmissions for all-electric drive vehicles. While the upfront costs are more for agencies going all-electric green with new buses, the savings literally down the road can be substantial.
“Our electric buses are coming in well under a million dollars, in the $850,000 to $950,000 range, and the markets are starting to support it,” says Josh Anderson, DesignLine’s executive vice president of engineering. “But even with an upfront in purchase cost, the maintenance costs drop about 55 percent and the fuel cost decreases about 60 percent. That still puts us a quarter million dollars below a diesel on a 12-year life cycle.”
Anderson says the cost of maintenance plummets with the death of the internal combustion engine, with all its belts and rotating components.
“The transmission is a high maintenance item with big costs,” Anderson says. “We estimate a 65 percent reduction in regularly scheduled oil, filter and belt changes. When you’re servicing an electric vehicle you’re not doing any of that for electric motors. We reduce the wear and tear on the brakes because we’re using the electric motor to perform some of that function through regenerative braking. We’ve electrified all of our accessories; the air conditioning compressor, the air compressor on the engine and the alternator’s gone.”
Anderson adds that he can now pay $6,000 for an electric motor off the shelf anywhere in the country. Technology has advanced to where there are no longer skyrocketing prices for various prototypes. From new electric buses down to their parts, costs are falling.
“Technologies are getting better, volumes are getting better,” Anderson says. “It’s becoming a more commodity-driven market. Spending a million dollars on a prototype is no longer needed. It’s not going to make these buses unavailable to most agencies.”
In the end, Johnson may very well sum up the direction for both the builders of current and future buses and the industry’s parts manufacturers.
“The final goal is a fully electrified vehicle,” Johnson says. “We’re building toward that.”