Evan Ramstad
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The first thing you notice while riding in an electric bus is the quiet.

On the inside, there's no constant drone of a diesel engine, which is especially loud for riders who are in the back and closest to it. And on the outside, there's no 90-decibel roar as the bus pulls away from the curb. E-buses on the street are around 65 decibels, the same as a normal car.

Transit officials in the Twin Cities and Duluth are learning, however, that by some other measures, e-buses aren't as efficient as buses they're meant to replace.

"We're still paying more on a per-mile basis for electric than for diesel," said Carrie Desmond, the head of electric bus infrastructure at Metro Transit in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

This has been a year when consumers, investors and automakers lowered their expectations for EVs, which had appeared set for a rocket-like takeoff in sales growth.

Instead, the increase in demand for EVs was less than the increase in automakers' production. Some cut production as a result, and most lowered prices.

Makers of e-buses are still catching up to demand. Some have order backlogs that take more than a year to fill. Even so, the experience transit systems are having with them is another sign that the EV revolution is more of an evolution.

Metro Transit ventured into e-buses in 2019 by purchasing eight 60-foot buses, the extended kind with three axles and a middle that articulates. That represented less than 1% of its overall fleet of 900.

Also in 2019, Duluth Transit Agency (DTA) bought seven 40-foot buses, representing 10% of its fleet.

"That was a pretty big pilot," David Clark, DTA's marketing chief, said. "They were given workloads that were comparable to our fixed-route diesel buses in order to really see what capacity and performance challenges and opportunities they brought."

There was some pain along the way. For a time, the Duluth system had to cut back the winter usage of e-buses. The combination of cold temperatures and steep hills, which demand more power from an engine, meant that batteries were draining before a driving shift was complete.

Duluth's big experiment attracted Proterra, the manufacturer of its e-buses, and others to study the effects of cold on the kind of batteries needed for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles. They learned the first generation of e-buses performed best when temperatures ranged from 40 to 65 degrees.

"What we learned through the pilot program is they were not a one-for-one replacement for our diesel fleet," Clark said.

The agency is still using e-buses. In August, it overhauled its entire system to adapt to post-pandemic demand and, in that process, optimized several routes for e-buses. It recently ordered about a dozen new diesel buses.

"It's cost-benefit analysis," Clark said. "Of course, the mid-range goal is to have a larger percentage of our fleet be electric when the technology becomes more in line with the needs and expectations we have."

This summer, in a sign of its long-term plans for e-buses, Metro Transit opened a new bus garage in the North Loop of Minneapolis that was designed with charging in mind.

The agency expects to use the 60-foot e-buses on the Gold Line, the new express route from St. Paul to Woodbury, when it opens next year. And it has ordered five 40-foot e-buses from New Flyer, the Winnipeg-based manufacturer with a factory in St. Cloud, that it will fold into regular routes around the metro. It also received a federal grant to buy 12 40-foot e-buses from Gillig, a California manufacturer.

The lifespan of a bus is about 12 years, in line with federal aid guidelines, which means Metro Transit updates roughly 8% of its fleet annually. Through 2027, Metro Transit aims for 20% of its replacement purchases to be e-buses.

"There was a period of time when people in the industry were suggesting that the battery technology was going to evolve so fast that it would be kind of like semiconductors, maybe doubling at some predictable rate," Brian Funk, chief operating officer for Metro Transit, said as we stood next to the 150-kilowatt chargers used for the 60-foot buses.

"That's not been the experience," Funk added. "We can get more battery and we can go farther than when we placed the order for these [buses], but it's not orders of magnitude difference."

Investors experienced that same rise and fall in expectations. Two years ago this month, the share price of Tesla, the leading EV maker, hit an all-time high at just over $400, or 20 times more than it was in November 2019. Today, Tesla's share price is around $225.

Correction: This column was updated to correct the number of e-buses Metro Transit has ordered from New Flyer to five and to note a grant for it to buy 12 e-buses from another manufacturer, Gillig.