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Park City's Electric Bus Charging System Hits A Bump

As Park City Council found out recently – sometimes being on the cutting edge can have its consequences. Melissa Allison looks into the industry standard for electric buses and where Park City fits in all of it:

Park City was the first mountain resort community in the U.S. to operate a zero emission bus fleet. Each of the six electric buses cost $607,000.

The city leases the batteries which required they install special charging systems at both the Kimball Junction and  the Old Town transit center. The city has seven more electric buses that should arrive in November.

The problem? Park City purchased buses that use a 400 volt charge and that’s what was installed at the bus stations. The new industry standard, however, is for the 800 volt which is incompatible with the busesPark City has.

When Public Works Director Blake Fonnesbeck contacted Proterra, the manufacturer of the buses, about the issue they told him the new 800 volt buses would not work on the 400 volt charging system the city installed less than a year ago.

“So I said, ‘Wait, we can’t not have that work,'" Fonnesbeck said. "'We’re expecting, our whole plan is that these chargers we put in will continue to function with the new buses.’ So they went back and figured out a way to make the chargers, and they’re still going to be engineering that over the summer, but basically making those chargers so that when they see an 800 volt bus come in, it can do 800 volt. When they see a 400 volt bus coming in, it will just know that by the computer and sensor and it will drop down and charge it as a 400 volt.”

In spite of the stressful three days it took to iron out the problem – Fonnesbeck said it turned out to be a good thing.

“We actually, I think, are creating a much better product in a sense because they’re a lot of Proterra buses that have gone out across the country as well," Fonnesbeck said. "So by us pushing it, and pushing that envelope we’re actually making a better product for, for not only us, but others that have jumped in early in the electric bus game.”

The new electric buses will have a 250 mile range versus the Electric Xpress’s 40 mile range. Fonnesbeck said  more improvements are ahead – starting with a new drivetrain.

"It can actually go up the hills faster, it can take off at the stop light faster, those kind of things," Fonnesbeck said. "So they’ll be engineering that, we probably won’t get that in November but it’s basically kind of a plug-n-play type of thing so when they get the ones ready in about a year or so, we’ll be able to pop out the old transmissions and put in the new.”

The city will continue to lease the batteries for the buses that will enable them to stay up with the latest in battery technology.

The city has plans to become a fully electric fleet in the next four years.

I’m Melissa Allison, KPCW News

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