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Electric Busses Failing Duluth Test Drive

Duluth was only too happy to serve as the testing grounds for an Obama-era grant to prove that emissions-free electric busses were the way to go in the era of global warming. It mattered not that the seven vehicles manufactured by an east coast company called Proterra cost almost twice as much as each of the 70 or so diesel busses already in the city’s fleet.

But John Ramos of the Duluth Monitor reports it’s been an uphill battle from the start of service nearly two years ago for the new-age busses.

Two months after their unveiling, all seven buses were pulled from service, because their braking systems were struggling on Duluth’s hills, and a software problem was causing them to roll back when accelerating uphill from a standstill. Technicians also determined that Duluth’s cold weather was causing the bus heaters to drain the batteries too rapidly, preventing them from completing a full shift.

Proterra technicians traveled to Duluth to make the necessary repairs. To reduce the drain on the battery, they installed diesel-powered heating systems on the buses. This upgrade allowed the battery to be used strictly for locomotion—but also meant that the buses were no longer emissions-free.

So the main selling point for getting onboard with electric busses in the first place was gone within weeks of hitting the streets. The ride hasn’t gotten any smoother with the Duluth Transit Authority (DTA) recently confessing to the city council they dubbed one bus after a demon-possessed car called Christine in a Stephen King horror story.

If a bus’s battery runs too low, and it loses power in the field, it cannot be recharged and restarted on the spot. It must be towed to the charging station at the garage.

“What’s the power of an electric bus like?” I asked. “Is there any difference from a diesel?”

“In some cases, it doesn’t accelerate on a hill the same way a diesel does,” [DTA general manager Phil] Pumphrey said, “—partially because it’s only got one drive wheel. The diesels have two.”

You get the picture. DTA officials consider it a good day when they have the electric busses on the street in service now most of the time. The rubber will hit the road, however, when it comes time to replace them.

“We’re happy to be doing this demonstration project and helping forward the technology aspect of electrics in an environment like this,” Pumphrey said noncommittally. “My counsel would be that we need to continue to see how reliable and effective they are.”

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