SEATTLE — When I stepped aboard one of Seattle's first electric buses, I couldn't help but notice that it was strewn with orange sandbags.
The bags — on the floor, on the seats, leaking grains into every crevice — are a sign of the state of electric transit buses today. In other words, they aren't carrying many passengers yet. The bags emulate the weight of passengers, taking fare-free rides across the region as the buses get ready for showtime.
"Now we're in the early stage of electric vehicles, and we're getting past the get-to-know-you phase," said Danny Ilioiu, the strategic program manager for zero-emissions buses at King County Metro, the transit agency for the county that includes Seattle.
The Seattle region has cheap and clean electricity from hydropower, which makes it easier to justify the jump to electric buses despite their higher price tag. In 2016, with a $4.7 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration, King County Metro tested three buses. One year later, Metro committed to electrifying its entire fleet by 2040.
The transit agencies of Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles soon followed suit.
Today there are 40- and 60-foot buses by three manufacturers — Proterra Inc., BYD Co. and New Flyer — going through their paces.
Metro acquired 10 models on short-term leases in order not to get stuck with lemons. They are navigated on urban routes, suburban routes, and hilly routes, and driven in the rain. Sometimes the buses have fallen below their promised range of about 140 miles in colder weather. Charging equipment is being tested; repair crews are practicing lifting them.
The results? "No bad surprises," Ilioiu said.
Then he added: "Really good. We're excited about the results." Metro's plan is to order 120 buses next year and another 250 by 2025.
One of the biggest hurdles is how to fuel them. How do you build the infrastructure to charge hundreds of buses?
Ilioiu drove me to the neighboring city of Bellevue to see how it might work. At a park-and-ride lot, Metro has built a steel frame, called a gantry, over the path its electric buses run. When a bus approaches it, the driver surrenders control of the steering wheel and the vehicle automatically eases under the gantry, where a mechanical arm drops a charging plug onto the bus roof.
By 2030, Metro plans to build a new bus depot that will deploy this kind of system en masse for up to 250 buses. Some on long-haul routes will stay and charge for hours; others on shorter, closer circuits will cycle through quickly, snatching some electrons before heading out again.
Another challenge involves the cost of electricity. New tariffs need to be worked out with the two utilities that provide electricity in Metro's territory, Seattle City Light and Puget Sound Energy.
Metro has learned some lessons the hard way. With its first electric buses, its demand charges — the amount that Metro pays to the utility for its peak consumption — made the cost of fuel skyrocket. This occurred even though electricity in the region is generally cheap. According to a recent study, the demand charges caused electric fuel to cost 57 cents a mile, far more than the 30 cents a mile for a comparable diesel bus.
The 120 buses that Metro will acquire next year may end up using up to 7 megawatts of power.
"That is a significant budget item," said Radhika Moolgavkar, a special projects manager at Metro who is responsible for negotiating contracts with the power companies. It will be her job to bargain for rates that make electric buses inexpensive to operate, or not.
As we finished our tour, both Ilioiu and Moolgavkar seemed confident that the obstacles to electric buses will be soon in the rearview mirror.
They're excited that the buses could help make electric transportation a reality in the eyes of thousands of bus riders. After riding these buses a few times, Ilioiu hopes, "people will realize they just work."