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Battery Powered Electric Buses Hit Streets In Northwest

Link Transit

In the last couple years, you've seen mass-produced, 100 percent electric cars take to the streets in the Northwest. In the same vein, now come the first battery powered buses. And we're not talking about trolley buses that get juice from overhead wires.

Wenatchee-based Link Transitis the first out the gate in our region. It plans to replace five diesel-powered trolley buses with battery electric models. A California company called EBus has delivered three so far. Link Transit general manager Richard DeRock says right now the battery buses are just running a few hours in the mornings while bugs get worked out.

But DeRock says dramatic fuel cost savings are already apparent in each electric bus.

"We can operate (one) for a month for about $90 worth of electricity. That compares to about $1,400 worth of diesel fuel that we were using previously. So, there is almost a 14 to 1 cost savings on the energy."

Link Transit bought the new electric buses and built a fast-charging station with a $2.9 million grant from the federal government's economic stimulus program.  DeRock says the agency has lined up another grant to buy five more of the 22-passenger battery-powered buses.  Those would be ordered once the first acquisition is completed and functioning well.

DeRock says the availability of cheap, renewable hydroelectric power for battery charging makes a compelling case to outside grantors. "We have very low cost power here in the Wenatchee Valley," the agency leader explained. 

The advantages of Columbia River hydropower also excite Ben Franklin Transit, which may be the next to deploy a battery-powered bus in the Pacific Northwest.  Ben Franklin Transit serves Washington's Tri-Cities. The agency is using federal grant money to refit a regular 40-foot city bus with an electric motor and batteries.  The bus to be used in this demonstration project was previously taken out of service due to damage from a traffic accident.  Complete Coach Works of Riverside, California is performing the rebuild, with delivery anticipated by spring 2013.

At a recent agency board meeting, BFT chairman Leo Bowman said "a lot of people will be watching this project," in part because the refurbished bus should have an unusually long range.  The transit operator hopes the battery-powered coach can drive its route all day - up to 120 miles - without having to stop to recharge.

Finally, the Seattle area's Metro Transit is shopping for battery electric buses.  In 2010, Metro Transit was awarded $4.7 million in federal economic stimulus funds to demonstrate electric bus technology.  But agency spokeswoman Rochelle Ogershok says the agency hasn't found a model yet that is "viable" for its needs.

In its initial solicitation to potential suppliers, Metro Transit asked for a battery-powered bus that could recharge by connecting to existing overhead trolley wires.  But it turns out, no American manufacturer makes such an electric vehicle.  Ogershok says the region's biggest transit agency will issue a revised solicitation around the beginning of the new year.

On the Web:

Link Transit's battery powered fleet (Link Transit)

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.