As cities build up their transit systems, there's often a missing link: getting passengers from their homes to the rail lines.
Running noisy and polluting buses on quiet suburban streets isn't the answer at least among some homeowners and quieter electric buses can only go about 60 miles before needing a recharge, impractical for many routes.
Enter Ebus Inc., a Downey-based manufacturer of electric-powered buses and trolleys that has come up with a way to extend the range of the vehicles fourfold, by putting a micro-turbine generator on the bus. Now, with one tank of propane or diesel fuel that lasts for days, the buses can run their route during the day and recharge at night.
"This finally puts electric-powered buses into the range of conventional buses," said Chief Executive Anders Eklov. And that, Eklov hopes, will help take his company from a small niche operation into a broader market.
Ebus is one of only a handful of electric bus makers in the U.S. and it has the most buses deployed of any company. One of its main competitors, Advance Vehicle Systems Inc., went out of business last year; Ebus bought that company's plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Eklov, who said he made a small fortune 18 years ago when he sold a software company, decided to invest in electric bus technology after seeing electric shuttle buses operate at Yosemite National Park during a family vacation. The company that made those buses had just sold out to Electric Vehicles International, which turned it into a subsidiary of its larger electric vehicle operation. The subsidiary was turning out a handful of electric buses each year, mostly as demonstration projects.
Eklov bought the subsidiary from EVI in 1998, renamed it Ebus, and kept most of the employees in place. He continued selling electric buses and trolleys, building them from scratch on the Downey assembly floor.
Maximizing the charge
To build one of its 22-foot buses about half the size of a standard city bus workers assemble the steel frame, then place several large rectangular boxes of up to 100 nickel-cadmium batteries each into compartments. The battery compartments are then hooked up to drive systems and other operating systems, and the frame is either fully enclosed for a bus or partially enclosed for a trolley. The whole process takes about two months from start to finish.
In Santa Barbara, a fleet of 10 Ebus electric trolleys runs along short stretches of the main business district on State Street and the beach district on Cabrillo Boulevard. To run them for eight hours a day, trolley drivers must accelerate more slowly and make as few sudden stops as possible. "We do this to maximize the charge, so the buses don't quit on us after just seven hours," said Sherrie Fisher, general manager of the Santa Barbara Metropolitan Transit District.
The need for frequent charges limits the length of the routes to two miles or so, which is one reason why the market for electric buses has been largely confined to business district circulators and college campuses.
But Eklov figured that small and efficient micro-turbines are ideally suited to generate additional onboard power and extend the range of Ebus' vehicles. So he invested in Capstone Turbine Corp. and arranged for the company become a supplier.
By late 2001, Ebus' first hybrid-electric trolley rolled off the line. With up to 250 miles of range on a single charge, the company was ready to target the emerging market.
An early customer was the city of Coral Gables, Fla. Five hybrid-electric buses are used for a feeder route, connecting the central business district with a north-south light-rail line. "They were just about the only ones on the market with a hybrid-electric bus," said project manager Jim Kay.
Within a year, the route tripled ridership projections, which turned out to be too much of a good thing because there weren't enough buses to handle the overload. "It's an emergent technology, so it's not surprising that the buses need more maintenance," Kay said. The city is now leasing additional electric buses from a local provider.
Cost is a challenge. The micro-turbine pushes the selling price tag beyond $300,000, which is higher than that of an equivalent-sized conventional bus, according to Layne Holley, editor of Hybrid and Electric Vehicle Progress, a trade magazine published by Alternative Fuel Vehicle Group Inc.
To bring down price, Eklov said Ebus is developing a more conventional gas-electric hybrid bus that doesn't use the costly micro-turbine. It should be ready to take to market during the first half of 2006.
Ebus is also working on the other end of electric bus technology, developing a fast-charge power adapter that would reduce the charging time for one of its buses from the current eight hours to about one hour. "This will make our vehicles even more practical," Eklov said.
* Ebus Inc.
Year Founded: 1998
Core Business: Manufactures electric and electric-hybrid buses and trolleys
2003 Revenues: $4 million
2004 Revenues: $5 million
2004 Employees: 48
2005 Employees: 40
Goal: To capture market for mass transit feeder routes for alternative-powered buses and trolleys
Driving Forces: Community insistence on non-polluting, quiet buses; rising gas and diesel prices; demand for feeder routes for mass transit systems
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