Juneau’s first electric bus is a bust, but the city will move forward with electrifying the fleet

an electric bus in the snow
Capital Transit’s first electric bus has faced persistent problems, but the city will electrify the fleet with a new manufacturer. (Photo from the City and Borough of Juneau)

Juneau’s first electric bus hasn’t spent much time on the road since its debut in the spring of 2021 thanks to persistent mechanical problems that have kept it idled again this winter. Still, the city has bought seven more electric buses — from a different vendor.

Capital Transit Superintendent Rich Ross says he remains enthusiastic about electrifying the fleet.

“There’s going to be learning curves along the way,” Ross said. “So while this bus has been a lemon — somewhat of a lemon — we also understand the technology is improving in leaps and bounds as time goes on.”

That lemon, from Southern California manufacturer Proterra, is the only electric bus in Juneau’s fleet of 18. Though other places in Alaska have experimented with electric transit, Juneau was the first city in the state to purchase an electric bus for its fleet.

But there have been ongoing issues with the bus’s wiring harness. When that part fails, it sometimes shuts down one of the bus’s two motors. Though it’s been patched several times, Ross says Proterra has not yet supplied a replacement.

There have also been problems with the bus’s performance in winter weather. Its batteries are supposed to last for 210 miles, enough to cover a 10-hour shift in Juneau.

Ross says that range has not been observed in practice.

“Roughly the best range we were able to accomplish with the bus we have in the summer prime, warm, dry conditions was around 170 miles,” he said.

Even that didn’t hold up in the few weeks the bus ran last winter.

“That range dropped to just below 100 miles because so much more energy is being used to keep the batteries warm and heat the interior cabin and defrost the windows,” he said.

Not only was the battery drained more quickly, it was also slower to charge. In warmer temperatures, electric vehicles rely on quick charging through regenerative braking, which converts kinetic energy to electric. That doesn’t work as well when a battery is cold.

Denise Koch, Juneau’s Deputy Director of Engineering & Public Works, says the nagging problems with the wiring harness have limited the city’s understanding of the bus’s cold weather performance. The bus was out of commission from Thanksgiving through New Year last winter, too.

“That happened to coincide with some of the coldest temperatures of the year, which was frustrating,” Koch said. “We were really looking forward to gathering a long stretch of data about how it performed in that climate.”

In spite of the challenges, the officials with the City and Borough of Juneau and Capital Transit are optimistic about electrifying Juneau’s bus fleet.

“It’s reasonable when you’re an early adopter to expect that there are going to be some kinks and some problems with a newer technology. And that’s what happened,” Koch said.

In October, the city moved forward with purchase of seven new buses using funding from the Federal Transit Administration. But this time they’re switching manufacturers.

They opted for Gillig, the manufacturer that makes Capital Transit’s diesel fleet. Much of the maintenance on the electric buses will be similar to the diesel fleet. Capital Transit hopes that will help prevent future maintenance delays.

The city also hopes that will mean more reliable battery performance. They chose Gillig after consulting with other northern transit agencies — especially Missoula, Montana, which regularly runs Gilligs in cold weather.

Koch says the Federal Transit Administration ranked Gillig as the best performing electric bus in 2022.

Electrification of the fleet will be an important piece of Juneau’s greenhouse gas emission goals. The city has pledged to cut 80% of emissions by 2045, and transportation is one of the highest-emitting sectors.

Koch says the purchase of the new buses shows the city’s dedication to being a leader in sustainability.

“We’re the first ones in Alaska,” she said. “There’s always a balance between, you know, how far you get out ahead? Or do you sit on the sidelines and wait till a technology is completely tried and true.”

Southeast communities Ketchikan and Metlakatla also announced plans to introduce new buses in 2024. And late this summer, the Biden administration announced $1.66 billion in grants tor clean transit. Much of that will go toward electric buses

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