Win Gruening: Chasing ‘free money’ for electric buses

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By WIN GRUENING

The country is awash in “free” money.  Two of the fastest growing job positions nationally are grant writers and grant administrators. Many grants target local and state government entities that are looking for ways to subsidize projects that might otherwise be fiscally unfeasible in today’s economy, or just plain unpopular with taxpayers.

Several municipalities in Alaska are currently exploring ways to cash in on the many grants available through a myriad of programs related to infrastructure, climate change, and education.

But is the money really “free”?

Projects, products, and services that are funded wholly or primarily through grants often are not subjected to the kind of hard analysis and objective vetting that are accorded similar projects that are chiefly funded through public tax dollars. After all, it’s free, right?

Often ignored are the long-term costs of operating and maintaining buildings and equipment, costs that can sometimes exceed whatever benefit is derived from the original subsidized purchase price. “Free money” can also fuel a temptation to try new and untested products, or experiment with a rapidly evolving technology not yet evaluated under all kinds of conditions and uses.

This brings to mind the glowing stories in the media about the current rush of cities around the country to acquire battery electric buses (BEB’s) as part of a larger goal to achieve reductions in their community’s carbon footprint. 

The community of Juneau is no exception. 

Juneau’s first municipally operated battery electric bus was put into service in April 2021. Funded by a grant, the 40-foot bus, manufactured by Proterra, soon experienced problems and couldn’t hold battery charges long enough to complete an entire route during cold winter weather.  Since then, other mechanical problems required the bus to be removed from service several times.

The battery electric bus was down for approximately six weeks from last Thanksgiving to after New Year’s Day due to powertrain and wiring harness problems.

City officials say they are still committed to electrifying Juneau’s entire 18-bus fleet. They intend to investigate other manufacturers and consult with cities in colder climates to learn more about electric bus performance before agreeing to purchase additional vehicles. 

However, a cursory Google search would have revealed that Proterra buses have been having issues for years.

The Duluth Monitor reported that the Duluth Transit Authority had purchased seven buses (at $900,000 apiece) from Proterra using a $6.3 million grant. The Duluth Transit Authority and Proterra engineers spent two years designing a bus for this pilot project that would operate in Duluth’s cold climate and steep topography. 

After delivery in August 2018, all seven buses were pulled from service after only two months for issues similar to those experienced in Juneau.

Foothill Transit, based in weather-friendly West Covina, California, had 13 idled Proterra battery-electric buses out of 32 in its fleet. At one point, the agency indicated up to 67% of its electric buses were not operating during 2019 and 2020.

There are similar stories involving Proterra buses in Los Angeles and Philadelphia.  

Yet, somehow, Juneau officials chose Proterra for their first electric bus. 

Apparently, supply was limited and, of course, the bus was “free”.

Admittedly, BEB’s have promise.  They claim to enjoy four times the fuel efficiency of diesel buses, lower maintenance costs, and zero carbon emissions (if you ignore the optional diesel heaters sometimes used in cold climates). Grants are mandatory because BEB’s can cost 75% more than a diesel bus in addition to the associated costs of charging equipment.

But they must work to be of any value at all. 

Juneau has grants pending now that will fund seven additional buses and is in the process of choosing a manufacturer.  One possibility is Gillig, the company that manufactures the city’s current fleet of diesel buses.  This could be advantageous as there would be maintenance similarities between the two kinds of buses.

But Gillig’s electric battery buses are relatively new to the market and, as of the beginning of this year, only about 100 had been delivered.  Is that enough experience to assure city officials of the kind of reliability and cost savings that are promised?

Or does it even matter since they are free?

After retiring as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in Alaska, Win Gruening became a regular opinion page columnist for the Juneau Empire. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is involved in various local and statewide organizations.

Reasons for ballot rejection: Signatures, postmarks

Win Gruening: A poetic moment in Alaska history, with Don Young and Nick Begich III

11 COMMENTS

  1. …that only run during summer. Hahaha. Electric buses for 4 months of summer and
    diesel buses for 8 months of winter. Hahaha. Hahaha. I do miss when anchorage had on trial its little electric bus. It was the only time
    our hot-shot assembly rode the clean bus for 1st time. Hahaha. That’s what some drivers said about city members ‘they say, they don’t want to ride the buses because the buses are stinky.’ hahaha. I bet anchorage members
    be more chipper at meetings after riding by bicycle and bus. They can put all their papers in a water-proof saddlebag. How many leaders attitudes would slightly change for the better after riding public transportation.

  2. This:
    “Often ignored are the long-term costs of operating and maintaining buildings and equipment, costs that can sometimes exceed whatever benefit is derived from the original subsidized purchase price.”
    Is only partly the problem with grants.
    .
    When the Federal Government gives you a grant, it comes with chains. They are enslaving you to the whims of the Federal government. Sometimes the chains are easy to carry, sometimes they are crushing.
    .
    But, what politician will turn down money, to hell with the long term impacts…

  3. As Bernie’s progressive utopia of Venezuela suffered massive inflation, economic collapse, and human suffering, the media stopped talking about it and we continue to follow their lead. Europe’s energy policies will result in a huge drop in the average Europeans standard of living, not in fifty or one hundred years, but now. Will we learn anything from this? Yes, the hard way.

  4. We need to carefully watch our public utilities to prevent them from falling for similar boondoggles. The wind generators on Fire Island, for example, are a variable and costly substitute for reliable and economical natural gas-fueled generators. The wind generators are, however, easy money for CIRI.

  5. Take a look at Proterra. They don’t have to have a product that performs. All purchases are made with grants and they have little to no competition. I’m sure Paul and Nancy Pelosi have stock in this company. Meanwhile, Juneau has a bus with poor cold weather performance and no windshield wipers.

  6. Still trying to remember the last time anyone on the CBJ Assembly made an intelligent decision! Anybody want to contribute here?

  7. Win, absolutely right. I supervised the construction of Juneau’s Downtown Transportation Center some years back. The project included ” Obama Money’. Keeping it ” Green” was the focus of said money. The design included a Green Roof which required planting of Alpine Plants atop one of the structures arranged in an intricate mosaic pattern. To my complete and utter unsurprise these plants were very soon choked out by indigenous Red Alder saplings. 😳 Alder trees of course with their roots are destructive to the integrity of a roof. But then it never rains in Downtown Juneau so it’s probably not a problem?

  8. Fact: busses will run in Juneau
    Fact: must busses will be mostly empty with they run
    Fact: even though ridership is very low on most routes, many of the riders on the busses have fully subsiidzed bus passes
    Fact: It costs plenty of money to power busses no matter how its done

    Advice: forget about the busses and look for a battle you might win. In the meantime, if you want to see wasted money, look no further than Cares One….you can get a free ride to and from anywhere in Juneau with a quick call to the Police department. Need a refill for your brown bag? Cares One will get you to your facorite package store in less than 30 min and wait while you shop…..

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