Capital Transit riders in Juneau will notice something different about one of their buses this week. The first battery-electric bus in the fleet entered service Wednesday on the Mendenhall Express route. It’s one of the first electric public transit buses in Alaska.
Hal Kulm, a driver and supervisor with Capital Transit, said he can actually hear conversations in the back of their brand new battery-electric bus.
“It is really quiet. It doesn’t rattle near as much,” Kulm said. “It’s a carbon-fiber body. It’s not a metallic body. So, it definitely does dampen the noise a little bit.”
Kulm is completely unflappable, simultaneously providing commentary to passengers over the PA system and paying attention to traffic despite all the distractions. The only other sounds we hear are the bus’s interior ventilation fans and — sometimes — a very faint whirring sound of the bus’s electric motors.
“I haven’t touched my brakes once since we’ve been on this run,” Kulm said to the passengers over the PA. “Everything is just done automatically, or just the brakes are engaged as soon as we let off the accelerator. So, it’s recharging as we’re going.”
Kulm said he and other drivers like the bus. It’s a smooth ride and it actually accelerates better than a diesel.
And, there’s surprise its range: It takes about four hours to recharge, and then it can go all day.
“I have driven it on the equivalent of an eight-hour route and I had 25% power left over after an eight-hour day,” Kulm remembered. “And that was on a 40-degree day when I did it. It wasn’t a warm day by any means. So, it is very capable of running a route for us.”
Kulm gave preview rides during a ribbon-cutting ceremony last week that included Gov. Mike Dunleavy, state and local officials, and local renewable energy advocates.
Mark Hollenbeck of bus manufacturer Proterra said they put the bus’s batteries under the floorboards between the wheel wells.
“We don’t put batteries on the roof,” Hollenbeck said. “And we don’t put batteries in the rear, which is the most high impact of all. Because most transit buses when they get into an accident, they’re rear-ended.
“Battery packs are extremely heavy, and putting them on the roof messes with your center of gravity,” Hollenbeck said. “Our batteries being in the floor of the bus reduces the center of gravity and creates a better ride.”
In addition to less noise, better ride, and no emissions, battery-electric buses have a fraction of the moving parts that usually wear out or need repair.
Still, Katie Koester, head of the City and Borough of Juneau’s Engineering and Public Works Department which oversees Capital Transit, said there’ll still be plenty of things to keep their mechanics busy.
“The reality is there’s not a lot of regular maintenance that is needed on the electric systems themselves,” Koester said. “That’s one of the beauties of an electric bus, right?”
“You’re not changing the oil and doing things like that,” Koester said. “But there’s still a lot of systems on this bus that are like any other bus, and the heating and the cooling and the hydraulics to get the ADA accessibility.”
Koester said the bus and its charging station totaled nearly a million dollars. It was covered by the Federal Transit Administration’s Low- or No-Emission (Low-No) Grant Program and from the $8.125 million that was Alaska’s share of the Volkswagen Settlement Fund. That was after the automaker got caught installing software to cheat on diesel emissions.
“And here behind the Heritage [Coffee] is going to be our new Valley transit center,” Kulm said during a short drive on a Mendenhall Valley bus route. “And so we are going to have 30 park-and-rides back behind here.”
“We’ll come back in here, we’ll load up. All of our Valley transfers will be at this location. We will have charging stations for electric buses here,” Kulm predicts. “This is going to be a full-fledged, lovely transit center.”
Seven more buses are on order, paid for by the federal Low-No grants and a CBJ match.
At 35 feet long, they’ll be five feet shorter than the first bus so they can better navigate through Douglas Island neighborhoods.
Proterra’s Mark Hollenbeck said the battery-electric buses have a minimum usable life of 12 years.
Phasing out Capital Transit’s existing diesel buses when they come to the end of their life is part of a CBJ goal of using 80% renewable energy by 2045.