Proterra and Downwinders Advocate for Full Electrification of Dallas Bus System by 2030
A bus full of hungry Dallasites, baring the grisly winter weather that came early, lined up outside downtown’s Harwood Tavern to enjoy a savory meal of ribs with a side of squash and pecan salsa verde, courtesy of Dallas chef Graham Dodds. As a part of the “Electric Glide Bus Pub Crawl”, those in attendance had just heard from Downwinders at Risk Director, Jim Schermbeck and environmental activist Molly Rooke. Among others present was one DISD Trustee, a hydrogen fuel cell engineer for Toyota, and the man responsible for the very D-Link buses schlepping them around; The US electric bus manufacturer Proterra’s founder Dale Hill.
The pub crawl is an extension of the Root and Branch conference, in association with Downwinders at Risk, an air quality justice nonprofit based in DFW, and co-sponsored by 350 Dallas, a similar organization. The electric bus event itself was organized by Downwinders board member Evelyn Mayo. She expresses that their program focuses on identifying the largest contributors to particulate matter pollution in the DFW region, of which they name the DART system as being a significant polluter. Downwinders main focus for the evening is to communicate the dangers of PM, or particulate matter, which are the microscopic pollutants from combustion, which include fossil fuel powered engines in the vast majority of vehicles. Schermbeck makes this very clear while en-route to the second bar for the evening, articulating with various props that where there is a flame, there is particulate matter being ejected into the air surrounding it. This dampens the fervor I have for my natural gas furnace wall heater, my current pride and joy in the month of December.
Proterra’s website boasts that 75% of materials for their bus products are sourced from 34 States in the US. A firmly “Buy America” brand, they hold two manufacturing facilities in LA and South Carolina. As interest in automobile manufacturing shifts towards electric and autonomous vehicles, Proterra has invested in both, with a relatively new program on autonomous vehicles at the University of Nevada at Reno. Though autonomous vehicles aren’t a featured part of the conversation at the event, Hill demonstrates his foresight on the topic by describing the concept of “platooning” after we gather our drink and meal tickets at The Green Door Public House. One leading car, operated by a driver, determines the path for several other cars following in single file, while all cars simultaneously communicate with each other digitally, relaying braking and acceleration instructions very precisely. This style of autonomous vehicle deployment, Hill alleges, can be used to meet legislation requiring vehicles be operated by human drivers while still selling municipalities on the future of AV’s.
The EV-bus manufacturer’s clientele has grown considerably since their founding in 2004. Hill boasts a cache of impressive numbers during his short presentation at the D-Link bus stop and charging station outside the Dallas Convention Center. After a quick electric slide demonstration by Downwinders volunteers and attendees, Hill states that buses are regulated, under federal funding, to last 12 years. By Hill’s estimation, Diesel buses during that 12 year lifetime will incur about
$400,000 in fuel expenses. Electric buses, according to national average, will only cost about $100,000 in that category, or even less with the aid of solar powered charging stations. “In some instances, we can get the price of solar down to 4 cents per kWh. That means in 12 years, you’re only gonna spend $36,000 per bus for fuel”.
This sales pitch is key to Hill’s argument. When he goes to talk to prospective clients, he’s clear to specify, “I’m not here to talk to you about sustainability, I’m gonna give you that for free”. The is supported by abstract math, which he presents with airtight certainty. “We all want clean air, but no emerging technology really displaces the incumbent technology until it’s cost competitive. If we can’t afford it, it’s not gonna happen.”
Downwinders has a different approaches to selling the public on a shift towards a transit system that prioritizes ‘battery electric’ vehicles, a term that Hill emphasizes throughout the evening. Hill’s main concern is that most bus systems across the country are funded by a gas tax, something that will yield less funding power as cars become more efficient, or eschew combustion engines altogether. Mayo points out that Dallas is among the top 10 cities in the US with the worst air quality in the country, although that statistic usually focuses on ‘stationary’ sources of pollution such as factories and cement plants. By Downwinders estimation, DART’s buses are within the top 10 regional sources of particulate matter pollution, as Mayo clarifies, “Because it isn’t a stationary source, however it is often left out of the pollution reduction conversation”
While Proterra’s prerogative rests on selling a product that will keep up with the shifting needs of municipal transit systems, Downwinders wants to ensure that the air quality of the Dallas-Fort Worth region improves steadily. Both can swiftly argue the benefits of transitioning to a fully electric transit system by 2030. A few drinks and a stellar meal is a tried and true tactic to get the Dallas public on board with any regime change.