When you think of cities leading the way in transportation innovation, Seneca, S.C., is hardly the first place that comes to mind. However, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, this Oconee County community of 8,207 became the envy of larger municipalities everywhere when it was the world’s first to launch an all-electric bus fleet in February 2015.
Admittedly, it is a small fleet with only six buses, but it’s not the size of the fleet that counts, or the city behind it. What matters is that these electric, battery-powered buses are the future of mass transit and Seneca is on the cutting edge of it. By proving its success in a small community, Seneca is showing larger municipalities how to scale their program in order to meet individual needs.
“We are saving money, saving the environment and we have saved millions of pounds of carbon dioxide emissions,” said Al Babinicz, CEO and general manager of Clemson Area Transit, which operates the public transportation system in Seneca as well as four other cities, and four college campuses across three counties. “Seneca’s electric fleet is a compelling success story and we are excited to share it with others.”
Understanding the mechanics
Babinicz said the city of Seneca made the decision to convert to an all-electric fleet in 2014 thanks in part to nearly $6 million in grants from the U.S. Federal Transit Administration, $540,000 from the South Carolina Department of Transportation as well as over $500,000 of the city’s own resources. The city contracted its new vehicles through Proterra, a leader in the design and manufacturing of zero-emission electric buses that not only reduce operating and maintenance costs, but also eliminate dependency on fossil fuels and produce less noise while rolling along the city streets. Although each bus costs $900,000, Babinicz said it is a cost that the community can expect to recoup in 12 years or less.
“In the last two-and-a-half years of passenger service, we have not purchased a single gallon of gas. Our electric buses have traveled over 263,445 miles, our maintenance costs are very low and we are getting approximately 17 miles to the gallon comparatively speaking,” he said. “The previous vehicles averaged five.”
If those numbers alone aren’t enough to make electric well worth considering, Babinicz reported that in addition to tripling mileage, the costs to achieve that mileage is significantly less as well. Seneca was used to paying approximately $.66 per mile in diesel fuel, but only $.26 per mile in electricity. A diesel vehicle costs approximately $1.53 per mile in maintenance while electric vehicles cost $.55 per mile, nearly a dollar less. “If you are operating at 250,000 miles per year, you can save so much in just maintenance alone,” Babinicz said. “Not only that, but a diesel bus has about 3,700 moving parts while an electric bus only has 70. That savesva lot of time and energy as well.”
They are also very reliable. In March 2016, Proterra announced that its national fleet surpassed 2 million miles of revenue service, including routes in Texas, California, Massachusetts, Kentucky, South Carolina and more. However, 11 months later, CAT hit another milestone when its bus that operates between Seneca and Clemson University reached a national milestone of 100,000 miles of uninterrupted service.
Babinicz said that the reason the buses can stay on the road is because they are on fast chargers that can have the bus up and running in six minutes and travel 30 miles before needing to recharge. As technology improves, he suspects buses will be able to go 150 to 300 miles per charge and will be able to run all day, but for now, they are aided with solar panels, which have been installed on the tops of the buses as well as on the CAT bus facility so that they can charge them with as much sunshine as possible.
“I don’t know that we will be able to get off the grid completely, but we are hoping to get pretty close to the edge of the map,” he said. Matt Horton, chief commercial officer with Proterra, said he is very happy about the partnership with CAT, especially because it is geographically close to the manufacturing facility in Greenville, S.C., which allows it to use local engineering talent from area universities.
“With Seneca being the first to convert to an all-electric fleet, it remains an important customer for us, and it was great that we were able to help it with some of the startup challenges it had in converting to a new system.”
Babinicz said that Seneca is very happy with CAT, its all-electric fleet and dozens of countries have visited to see how these buses function, including Canada, France, China and multiple cities right in the U.S.
“They are a huge benefit to small cities, and they are something that can easily be scaled for larger ones. If it works for six in Seneca, it will work for 600 in Chicago, and the savings will be directly proportionate. It is a bold decision to move forward on an electric fleet, but people are realizing that it is the future of the industry,” he said. “We are literally changing the world.”