- It is not easy to keep city passenger buses running, especially in cold climates. Swap diesel for electrons, and you have a new set of challenges, such as reduced ranges and slower fill times.
- Juneau was the first city in Alaska to buy EVs for its bus fleet, but repeated problems with the wiring often led to them being sidelined. Manufacturer Proterra says it is working on a stronger harness for city buses.
- Even with this EV speed bump, Juneau has ordered seven more electric buses. This time, however, they will be made by Proterra competitor Gillig.
Colder climates can be challenging for many electric vehicles to work properly, but it’s not just the temperatures that are causing problems to Juneau’s public transit system. The Alaskan capital announced in 2021 that it would add a 40-foot electric passenger bus to its fleet, but the zero-emissions model had recurring mechanical problems that forced Capital Transit to park the buses in garages for weeks.
The problem was a broken wiring harness that the transit agency repeatedly tried to fix but still sometimes disabled one of the bus’s two motors. Alaska Public Media (APM) reports that the bus manufacturer, Proterra, still needed to supply Juneau with replacement parts.
Still, electric buses are coming to Alaska. While Juneau was the first to buy an EV for its bus fleet, the city of Anchorage tested electric buses in 2018. Smaller cities including Ketchikan and Metlakatla have also announced plans to add electric buses to their fleets.
Range Drops with Temperature
When Juneau’s only electric bus was able to carry passengers around town, drivers and city administrators sang its praises. As that may sound familiar to drivers of electric passenger cars, buses drivers like a quieter ride, and buses require less maintenance. However, in cold weather, the 440 kilowatt hour (kWh) battery’s 210 mile range drops to 100 miles, and the battery takes longer to charge. Capital Transit Superintendent Rich Ross told APM that the faulty harness and other problems have not stopped Juneau transit authorities from using the electric buses.
“There will be a learning curve along the way,” says Ross. “So while this bus has been a lemon — kind of a lemon — we also understand that the technology has improved tremendously over time.”
“With the introduction of the new technology, we expect there will be some learning curves along the way,” the company said Car and Driver. “These learnings allowed us to improve the product. In this case, we are working to design and search for stronger harnesses to support Juneau buses.”
The Juneau bus that was damaged was a 2020 model year, and in 2022 Proterra announced that the 40-foot ZX5 electric transit bus could be equipped with a 738.0 kWh battery.
“These newer products are now the preferred choice for cities in northern climates to withstand the additional heating needs of extreme cold weather days,” said Proterra.
Capital Transit has already ordered seven more electric buses, but this time they are from one of Proterra’s competitors, Gillig. Gillig also produced the 17 diesel buses used in the Juneau fleet. Gillig’s electric buses are already in use in places with intense winter weather, such as Missoula, Montana. The company announced last month that it had received its highest-ever score for battery electric buses, 89.5, at the Federal Transit Administration’s Bus Test Program in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Basically completing that reliability test means that Gillig’s e-buses can qualify for purchase with federal dollars. Gillig has also announced that 45 transit agencies across the country will use the money provided in part by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Works Act 2021 to buy Gillig’s low- and zero-emission buses. Proterra buses remain in Juneau’s fleet.