Electric Road Trip

A visit to America's biggest electric bus factory

GREENVILLE, S.C. — This small town is where most of America's domestic electric buses are made.

Proterra Inc. owns and operates this factory, which employs more than 300 people. Since opening in 2011, it has built dozens of electric buses for transit agencies around the country.

Proterra was founded in 2004 by ex-Tesla executive Ryan Popple, who saw an opportunity to move from electric passenger cars into heavier vehicles. The company also has West Coast operations, with headquarters in Silicon Valley and an EV battery plant in a suburb of Los Angeles.

We took a tour of the Greenville factory this morning, which allowed us to get a behind-the-scenes look at how electric buses are actually made. Proterra designs the electric buses from scratch, rather than repurposing gasoline- or diesel-powered vehicles.

"We don't take an existing bus and convert it to electric. We start from the ground up," explained Matt Horton, chief commercial officer at Proterra. "We don't have to make some of the design compromises that others do."

While walking around the factory, we saw workers building several Catalyst E2 models that had been commissioned by the University of Georgia, which is hoping to build one of the country's largest fleets of electric buses. Transit agencies around the country have ordered Proterra buses, as well as its custom-built bus battery chargers. Proterra makes a "buy America" pitch to potential customers since its main competitor, BYD Co., is located overseas in China.

Over their 12-year life spans, the vehicles at the University of Georgia will displace more than 2.5 million gallons of diesel, according to a Proterra press release.

Utilities have also taken an interest in Proterra. Two with roots in the Southeast, Duke Energy Corp. and Southern Co., have helped the company with its deployments in North and South Carolina.

"Those two utilities in particular have definitely been out front in terms of supporting transportation electrification efforts," said Eric McCarthy, Proterra's senior vice president of government relations, public policy and legal affairs.

"I like to describe the utilities as the third leg of a three-legged stool," McCarthy said. "You've got the manufacturer, the customer and then the utility. And the utility is so important in terms of being not only the fuel provider, but also being in a position to educate the consumer, advise on rates and even help site the chargers."

After leaving Proterra, we hopped in our Kia Niro EV for a three-hour drive to Knoxville, Tenn., where our leg of the Electric Road Trip ends. We'll be handing off the car to our colleague Joel Kirkland, who will drive it through the Midwest toward Detroit, the historic epicenter of U.S. auto manufacturing.

Electric Road Trip

E&E News reporters take a 6,000-mile road trip in an electric vehicle to explore how the switch from gas to electric transportation will change the economy, environment and daily life of America.
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