Proterra: Providing the Transportation of the Future

If you have occasion to ride a bus in Seneca (Oconee County) this fall, the first thing you'll probably notice is that no one asks you to pay a fare. The next thing you'll notice is the exceptionally quiet ride. And what you may not see is the best part of all--they are the fully electric, zero-emissions EcoRide BE35 buses from Greenville-based Proterra.

The buses are the brainchild of Proterra founder Dale Hill, a technological entrepreneur who has been focusing on transportation solutions for 40 years. His former company, TransTeq, manufactured alternative fuel hybrid buses for the 16th Street Mall in Denver, the first such buses in the nation.

The EcoRide BE35 is the first fully battery-powered electric bus, allowing buses to run for a fraction of the cost of traditional diesel-fueled buses--or hybrid buses, or buses fueled by natural gas, for that matter.

Proterra was founded in 2004 and in 2010 plans were announced to move the manufacturing operations from Golden, CO to Greenville--largely because of the proximity to Clemson University's International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR) and the access to research and development that it provides.

The Proterra and CU-ICAR facilities are close enough to each other to walk between them, and there is considerable collaboration between them, both in the area of technical studies and in marketing efforts. Proterra's VP of Marketing Heidi McNary says, "We are very fortunate to have CU-ICAR in our midst, and to have access to that resource in our community."

The move was completed in early 2012, and the facility, which employs more than 200 people, manufactures not only the buses but the charging stations that allow the buses to recharge in a matter of minutes. The growth in hiring will continue as interest in the technology increases, and, McNary says, "Although some of the expertise we need is so specialized that we need to bring in staff, we have been able to find a really good pool of workers from here in the Upstate."

The plant has capacity to build up to 400 buses per year, and with $6 million investment from GM Ventures in 2011, and a further $23 million in 2012 from GM and other corporate interests, the company will be able to reach that capacity sooner.  According to a company press release, "This investment will be used for increasing the presence of Proterra into new and developing markets as well as for speedier delivery of the EcoRide to its customers."

The town of Seneca received a $4.1 million grant from the Federal Transit Authority's Transit Investment in Greenhouse Gas and Energy Reduction program, allowing for the purchase of four buses and a charging station. The savings are significant for a town the size of Seneca (population of just over 8,000): over a 12-year period, the town will save $500,000 in fuel costs, and since the buses are emissions free and don't require oil changes, there will be further savings in maintenance costs.

Including Seneca, seven cities across the country have signed on to the cleaner buses, but Seneca is the only town so far to have an all-electric fleet, which was made possible with the grant. Other cities have come back and reordered additional buses after their initial purchase. The other cities are Reno, NV; Worcester, MA; Pomona, CA; San Antonio, TX; Stockton, CA; and Tallahassee, FL.

Sharon Purvis is a freelance writer and editor who makes her home with her husband in Duncan, South Carolina. You can find more of her work at SharonPurvisWrites.com.