'High risk': City pays for 2016 gamble on hobbled electric bus fleet

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The City of Edmonton’s rigorous testing of potential electric buses in 2016 didn’t extend to Proterra, the fledgling company from which the city bought 60 buses.

Edmonton’s hobbled electric bus fleet is a cautionary story of risk vs. reward — and not necessarily following expert advice.

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Pierre Ducharme did the studies for a report presented to the city on June 22, 2016. He’s the electrification expert at Montreal-based MARCOM Management Consultants. The study was conducted over a number of months at an estimated cost between $150,000 and $200,000.

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Ducharme, who helps companies transition to adopt electric technology for fleets of cars, buses, and trucks, said the options were limited as neither Nova Bus nor the city’s electric bus fleet supplier, Proterra, had commercial buses on offer at the time. Winnipeg-based bus builder New Flyer and Chinese-based BYD were the options available.

“We only had two buses available — we tested what we had. We couldn’t test what we didn’t have,” he said.

Back in January, 2016, a team made up of maintenance, operations and fleet management Edmonton Transit Service (ETS) employees worked together to test and compare buses from two companies.

In snow and cold, they looked at how the buses performed on hills and on straightaways. How their mileage was, how the cold agreed with them.

Testing wasn’t without problems. Power for a charging station wasn’t available for one manufacturer, so a diesel generator had to be rented for the testing.

One bus had to be hand-washed because it was too tall for the bus wash.

One bus had to be flat-towed because a towing adapter wasn’t available.

One bus didn’t have winter tires on so it kept slipping on acceleration and braking; the city applied its own winter tires.

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One bus had a design flaw — reduced curbside visibility because of battery pack installation (later corrected by the company).

Buy five first

Shopping for the city’s electric bus fleet was no run to the corner store. Ducharme’s documented recommendation to council at the time? Buy five buses first.

“When you buy more than five buses, it’s more than a pilot project — it becomes a real business,” he said.

“Buying five buses gives you the opportunity not only to test the buses, but to see if you will change the way you do things to adapt to those buses.”

At the time the Edmonton council made their decision, it was known that Proterra was a new player on the bus manufacturing scene, with very little experience making electric buses, he said.

“You had a new company, and a new bus, and a new propulsion technology,” Ducharme said.

“That’s three things that don’t make for a low-risk project, does it? It was a high-risk — a very gutsy — decision on their part to go to Proterra.”

“It is odd that you would go to a new player that would offer a new technology, that’s hardly built any buses in their history, when there are manufacturers out there who at least know what they’re doing building a bus,” he said.

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“It seems to me they were rushing to get to be there first in Canada to adopt those buses, for some reason — why, I don’t know.”

“It wasn’t as if a dozen other large transit systems did it and it was a no-brainer.”

The word “risk” appears four times in the June 22, 2016, report.

Ducharme advised the council to go slow.

“The risk can be mitigated through a limited initial purchase and deployment to develop an internal knowledge base,” the report said.

“They took a high risk and now they’re paying the price,” Ducharme said.

“The problem they’re going to have is if nobody takes over Proterra’s (bus division) from their (Chapter 11 reorganization),” he said, noting that an electric battery manufacturer may be more appealing to potential stockholders than a bus manufacturer.

Some like it, some not

Riders who took the odd new buses that showed up at their stops that morning were, overall, enthusiastic, according to surveys.

According to 2,825 questionnaires collected from ETS riders in January and February of 2016, 78 per cent of respondents indicated that they would “like ETS to purchase electric buses.” Another 18 per cent indicated “don’t know,” and four per cent were “opposed” to the purchase of electric buses.

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What’s not to like?

“They got on the bus that morning, and they said, ‘Oh, this is different! It doesn’t make noise! It doesn’t stink like diesel!’ ” Ducharme said.

Procurement process

Despite MARCOM’s initial 2016 recommendations that the Edmonton Transit Service buy five electric buses for a limited pilot program and then 40 later on, the project ballooned into a 60-bus deal with Proterra.

The buses cost approximately $1.2 million each, and were purchased through a combination of funding from the Government of Canada and the city, said Carrie Hotton-MacDonald, branch manager with the City of Edmonton’s Edmonton Transit Service.

Hotton-MacDonald said Proterra was chosen in 2018 to enter into a contract based on a fair, open, transparent and competitive procurement process.

“For the electric buses, the city’s competitive bid process included a fairness monitor who provided an independent third-party review to ensure a fair supplier evaluation and selection process,” she said.

Hotton-MacDonald said the bidding process for the electric buses was similar to that used for diesel buses.

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California-based Proterra has since filed for Chapter 11 protection from bankruptcy and sold off a number of its divisions.

In an email to Postmedia, Hotton-MacDonald declined to provide any official numbers on how many of the city’s electric fleet are in service.

“There are a variety of factors that influence how many electric buses are in service at any given time, including maintenance and supply chain issues. As a result, we cannot provide an exact number of electric buses currently in service as it fluctuates,” she said.

The size of the city’s electric fleet is currently at 60, or six per cent of the city’s 1,000 buses. Of those 60, a reported three-fourths were not in working order as of last week.

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