Battery powered: zero-emission buses to replace UM’s fleet of dirty diesels

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By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT

The streets of Missoula will get a little greener this summer when the University of Montana’s fleet of noisy diesel buses give way to cleaner electric vehicles, saving more than 123,000 gallons of fuel while cutting carbon emissions by 1,300 tons.

After researching new transit technologies, the Associated Students of the University of Montana and the Office of Transportation opted to pull the trigger and make the purchase.

“The electric buses make sense from a cost standpoint, saving a lot of money over the long run, and going a long ways in accomplishing the university’s sustainability goals,” said Jordan Hess, director of ASUM’s Office of Transportation. “We’re looking at about $89,000 in savings over the life of the vehicle, and we’ll be saving a significant amount of diesel fuel, which brings benefits to local air quality.”

Hess said the agency spent 18 months researching the zero-emission transit industry before settling on Proterra. The company, based in California, describes itself as the industry leader in zero-emission electric buses.

The new buses come equipped with a variety of battery choices that recharge in 10 to 90 minutes and provide a range spanning 50 and 150 miles. Statistics provided by Proterra place the cost of operating a diesel bus at $1.03 per mile while the company’s electric buses cost 19 cents per mile.

Hess said the specs were perfect for UM’s transit operation – one of the few student-led agency’s in the country. The organization was founded in 1999 and provides free rides to campus from points throughout the city.

“The buses dock on route when they pass the same point, and they charge rapidly with a high rate of charge,” Hess said. “With transit, you go out and do the route and come back and lay over to maintain the schedule. It’s a natural fit for transit.”

While the up-front cost for each bus runs at $739,000, the vehicles won’t consume the 26,000 gallons of diesel fuel used annually by the current fleet. The new buses are expected to save $89,000 over the life of each vehicle.

“They’re a fair amount more up front, but the long-term cost savings is what we’re looking toward,” Hess said. “The price of diesel is volatile and the cost of electricity is fairly stable. This gives us more control over our electricity supply, where it comes from and how clean it is.”

ASUM will finance the purchase through the state’s INTERCAP loan program – a low-interest investment program run by the State Board of Investments. The student group also received a $169,000 Diesel Emissions Reduction grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The grant is administered by the Montana Department of Environment Quality.

“This electric fleet initiative is by far the most aggressive transportation program we have seen in Montana,” said DEQ program manager Brian Spengler. “DEQ’s diesel emissions reduction program has worked with ASUM in the past.”

Hess placed the annual ridership on UDASH – the university’s transit program – at 409,000 passengers, a figure that has remained stable over the years. With Millennials driving less than their predecessors, Proterra sees university transit as an opportunity for growth.

UM represents the company’s first university customer, Proterra said.

“With the cost savings, we’ll look at future service changes,” Hess added. “When Missoula College moves to its new building, we see an opportunity to reassess our service. We’ll continue to evaluate that and see what we can do.”

Once approved by the Montana Board of Regents, the change will make UM’s student-led transit agency the nation’s first to bring fast-charging buses to a university fleet.ProterraChargingTechnology