An electric bus at the new Proterra factory in L.A.'s City of Industry. Avishay Artsy/KQED
An electric bus at the new Proterra factory in L.A.'s City of Industry. (Avishay Artsy/KQED)

Electric Bus Makers Poised for an L.A. Gold Rush

Electric Bus Makers Poised for an L.A. Gold Rush

There's a highly charged competition going on in Los Angeles right now, and it’s between manufacturers of electric buses. Transit agencies around the country are going electric. San Francisco has been buying biodiesel hybrid buses and electric trolleys for years.

Los Angeles wants to go electric, too.

L.A.'s transit agency, Metro, has a goal of converting its bus fleet to 100 percent electric by 2030. The agency says it will spend around $100 million a year in contracts.

There are at least 10 companies in Southern California making and selling battery electric buses. The biggest is the Chinese company BYD, which has a factory in Lancaster employing over 500 people, and Ebus in Downey. The Silicon Valley startup Proterra, with a new assembly plant in City of Industry, likens itself to the Tesla of electric buses.

But is it possible the capital of car culture is advancing the art of the humble bus, even as Metro currently grapples with a fall in bus ridership?

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“We’re basically becoming the Detroit of electric transportation,” says Jeff Joyner, co-chair of the E4 Mobility Alliance, an industry council working to bring advanced transportation to the Southland.

“We had the supply chain from the aerospace industry … so those same engineers and those same companies that were supplying motors and various capacitors and technologies related to batteries are now supplying this advanced transportation industry,” according to Joyner.

Metro Prepares to Go Electric

To get an idea of what’s at stake here, consider a contract the Metro board approved on July 27. The agency agreed to spend more than $138 million for 95 buses from the Canadian company New Flyer, which has a service center in Ontario, California, and the Chinese-owned BYD.

These buses will run on Metro’s Orange Line busway in the San Fernando Valley and in the Silver Line carpool lane along the Harbor and San Bernardino freeways. It’s the agency’s cautious first step toward its 2030 zero-emission bus goal.

In 2011, Metro fully replaced its diesel buses with compressed natural gas (CNG) buses that are nearly as clean as their electric counterparts. It is still buying CNG buses, even as it moves toward converting its entire fleet of 2,300 buses to all-electric.

Metro’s goal of going all-electric by 2030 fits with the state’s clean energy goals. Lawmakers recently extended the state’s cap-and-trade program -- a market-based system to limit emissions -- and state utilities are moving toward generating 60 percent renewable energy by 2030.

Proterra’s New Factory

One of the electric bus companies that hopes to win future contracts with the agency just got to work in Los Angeles' City of Industry. Proterra’s $20 million West Coast facility opened there officially with a big party on July 26, which Gov. Jerry Brown attended.

“I’m really impressed with people who invent stuff, who make stuff, who use their hands," Brown said at the ceremony. "In my business we only use our mouths -- that’s our big expertise.”

Paul Mottram (L), plant manager, and T.J. Nass, customer program manager at Proterra's City of Industry facility.
Paul Mottram (L), plant manager, and T.J. Nass, customer program manager, at Proterra's City of Industry facility. (Avishay Artsy/KQED)

Proterra has sold about 400 buses to transit agencies all over the country, including in the Central Valley. Their buses are already on the roads in Seattle, San Antonio, Stockton and Reno. And, they make up the entire fleet for nearby Foothill Transit in the San Gabriel Valley.

“I’m hoping to get to the point where Tesla is called the Proterra of carmakers, but we’re not quite there yet,” said Proterra CEO and president Ryan Popple. He previously served as the senior director of finance for Tesla.

Proterra was founded in 2004 and began assembling their electric buses in Greenville, South Carolina. Their new facility in City of Industry is meant to serve West Coast transit agencies. The company’s headquarters in Burlingame is also the location of its battery testing facility.