Alaska’s first electric bus for public transit ready for Anchorage streets

A Proterra Catalyst E2 electric bus, under lease to Anchorage’s People Mover public transit system (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska’s first electric public transit bus is set to begin carrying passengers in Anchorage starting Tuesday.

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Among other things, a four-month trial period will test how the bus and its batteries fare in cold weather, as the city looks into whether it makes sense to have an entire fleet of electric buses.

The 40-foot Proterra Catalyst E2 bus is a little quieter than two people having a conversation and almost silent compared to a diesel Anchorage People Mover bus. The reduced noise pollution is one benefit of electric buses, but reducing air pollution and the cost of fuel are more to the point. City transit officials say replacing just one diesel bus with an electric one would cut greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 250,000 pounds every year.

“That’s a substantial change, in terms of what we’re breathing in, what our children are breathing in,” said Anchorage Public Transportation Director Abul Hassan.

The city will be looking to replace as many as 10 diesel buses in the next few years. If this testing goes well, they might start transitioning to electric.

“I would like to say this is the future, but it’s not, it’s the present,” Hassan said. “Now, there are a lot of naysayers in Alaska who say we can’t do this up here. It’s too cold. You know what? It’s not a gimmick. We can do something like this.”

Gimmick or not, it’s unclear if the bus will be a permanent addition to the Anchorage fleet. Proterra, the electric-bus manufacturer, is leasing its vehicle to the city, for now. City-operated waste removal utility, Solid Waste Services, is paying the $77,000 bill in exchange for advertisements on city buses.

The utility’s recycling coordinator, Suzanna Caldwell, said the ads will tout recycling services. And Solid Waste Services hopes to learn something, Caldwell said.

“Not only are we getting this advertising, we’re also getting to test the electric bus, because we’re also looking at incorporating electric vehicles into our own fleet, looking at electric garbage trucks,” Caldwell said.

There are practical reasons for testing an electric bus before an electric garbage truck. For one thing, garbage trucks are heavier, require more torque and therefore more energy, so testing a bus makes sense as a first step.

But what about the inconvenience to passengers greater if, say, the electric bus’s batteries die on a cold day?

“We’re not running out of juice,” Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said. “People have the opportunity to be among the first riders of an electric bus in Alaska. That’s a great achievement, and people ought to be jumping all over it. I’m going to ride this bus.”

For its part, Proterra says they’ve never had a problem with cold zapping the batteries dead while on a route.