First in Michigan, Blue Water Area Transit introduces electric buses to its fleet

Blue Water Area Transit (BWAT) is the first public transit agency in Michigan to add 100% electric battery-operated buses to its transportation fleet, a step that advances the Blue Water Area toward a cleaner and more environmentally-friendly future. 

BWAT was supported in this sustainability initiative by DTE Energy and Proterra. The project was largely funded by a $1.5 million grant through the Low or No Emissions Program offered by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) with a $232,555 match from the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT). 

“MDOT’s Office of Passenger Transportation and FTA have worked with Blue Water Area Transit for years to provide cleaner transportation options for the area,” says Dave McElroy, General Manager of BWAT. “They are very professional organizations and strong partners and promoters of public transit. We could not complete many of our major capital projects without their support.”

The competitive grant helped supplement the costs of the two 40-foot Proterra ZX5+ electric buses, an overnight in-house charging station, and an on-route charger at the Downtown Transfer Center on McMorran Boulevard in Port Huron. 

“We're incredibly proud of how this project was executed and the willingness and dedication of Blue Water Area Transit for being a trailblazer in the state and putting the first heavy-duty all-electric vehicle on the roads,” says Lynn Felcyn, Electrification Strategy & Business Development Program Manager for DTE Energy. 

BWAT’s attentiveness in lowering its emissions and impact on the environment started well before the addition of the electric buses. In 1996, BWAT transitioned to fueling its fleet of more than 80 buses with compressed natural gas (CNG), a cleaner-burning fuel which BWAT produces on-site at their facility in Port Huron. 

“Our CNG buses are very low emission, but they're not as low as these electric buses,” says McElroy. “It's going to be better for the environment and the community, and they can be charged with renewables through solar power and wind power, so I think that it's going to be great for the region as we transition to lower or no emission vehicles.”

The project aligns with DTE’s commitment to a net-zero carbon future by 2050. Felcyn says that DTE is retiring its coal plants and investing a great deal in renewable energy.

"So we structured a lot of pilots in Southeast Michigan — Blue Water is our first public transit agency to deploy zero-emission electric buses — but we have several others that are going to be deploying over the next two years and we have other types of vehicles that are going to be deploying the first of its kind in Michigan." says Lynn Felcyn, Electrification Strategy & Business Development Program Manager for DTE Energy. (Photo: Liz Fredendall)Heavy duty fleets tend to contribute a lot towards emissions and Felcyn says that the transportation sector alone is one of the largest drivers of greenhouse gas emissions. According to a 2019 report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the industry accounts for up 29% of emissions in the U.S.

“While Blue Water Area Transit had a much cleaner fleet than most that we deal with, collectively, it's an area that needs to be addressed and there is reliable technology out there — these zero-emission buses — that can help the fleet owners do that,” says Felcyn. 

More than 2,000 passengers take advantage of transportation services provided by BWAT every day and McElroy says that they do not expect any impact on bus fares now or in the future due to the addition of the electric vehicles. 

On a single charge, each bus is expected to run for about 150 transit miles — though it will regain miles or range with the help of regenerative braking. The charging station at BWAT’s Downtown Transfer Center will recharge the batteries while passengers are getting on and off.  

“There is a training process there because the drivers have to try to use the brake pedal as little as possible and let the bus brake for itself,” says McElroy. “Some of the driving differences with these is they have regenerative braking, so when you lay off the accelerator, the bus begins to brake by itself and as it brakes it recharges the batteries.”

"It's not going to be much different for the riders themselves and it is a little more quiet at lower speeds — they are beautiful vehicles," says Dave McElroy, General Manager of Blue Water Area Transit. (Photo: Liz Fredendall)
Ken Becker, Regional Sales Director – Midwest of Proterra, says that the batteries are temperature-regulated with glycol, keeping the batteries cool or warm so that they will operate regardless of weather conditions. 

According to Becker, the body of the bus was purposely built out of composite material due to its non-conductive nature. Carbon fiber is used in the composite of the body to help strengthen the bus.

“That body is very, very, very unique,” says Becker. “We were able to start with a clean sheet of paper and design an actual purpose-built electric bus and we knew right away that building an electric bus that’s safe and non-conductive requires a composite body, which is how all electric vehicles are built — like a Tesla.”

Becker says that this gave them the opportunity to make design decisions that helped to increase the safety of the buses. The location of the battery packs were placed outside of the passenger area, under the floor of the bus along its center of gravity and between the front and rear axles. 

In addition to the ability to be charged and hold energy, the batteries are also stackable so that they may easily be stored and accessed in case of an event such as a power outage. Becker says that the batteries were designed for what Proterra calls a “second-life” plan so they won’t end up in landfills.

"I think that the improvements on noise pollution is going to be very noticeable," says Ken Becker, Regional Sales Director – Midwest of Proterra. "When you see one of these buses for the first time, it's going to look like the future and it's going to sound like the future — it's a whole other experience." (Photo: Liz Fredendall)
Since the buses have electric motors rather than a combustion engine, McElroy says they anticipate lower maintenance costs on the vehicles. According to Becker, the operational savings [energy/fuel and maintenance] compared to a CNG bus is estimated to be about $396,000 per bus over a 12-year period — the service life required by the FTA if it helps pay for a large percentage of the transit bus. For transit agencies using diesel buses, the savings would be about $433,000. 

“When you buy something like a battery-electric vehicle, there's a higher entry price point, but once you get to midway through the lifecycle, you actually start saving money compared to a traditional diesel-type bus,” says Becker. 

McElroy says that the buses will be road-ready sometime in August once staff-training is completed.

“It's just been wildly successful,” says Felcyn. “We have other pilots that have come on the heels of this and I think a lot of that may be contributed to the awareness that Blue Water has brought to the industry.”
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