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WHITE HOUSE: PROTERRA INC. IS ON THE RIGHT TRACK

(by guest author Stan Thompson)

One of the first visionary US manufacturers to “get” the hydrolley concept has been Proterra Inc., the Golden, Colorado, (and now Greenville, South Carolina) manufacturer of state-of-the-art, Green-tech transit vehicles. Proterra’s founder, Dale Hill, shared a vision of a fuel cell streetcar with me way back in 2007.

The next year, 2008, Dale explained the hydrolley concept to the Charlotte Area Transit System and the Charlotte City Council.

At the National Hydrogen Association’s 2009 Conference and Expo in Columbia, South Carolina—one of the first cities to show off a hybrid hydrogen fuel cell Proterra bus—Dale described the hydrolley’s potential.

Also in 2009, Dale shared Proterra’s Inc.’s hydrolley vision at the University of North Carolina/Charlotte Research Institute’s International Hydrail Conference, where the keynote speaker was Walter Kulyk—Director of the Federal Transit Administration’s Office of Mobility Innovation.

But on January 27, Proterra—still a new company—really made the Big League.

Their new Greenville, SC, plant was visited by both US Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, and by Federal Transit Administration administrator, Peter Rogoff. The occasion was a timely follow-up of President Obama’s “Winning the Future” State-of-the-Union address.

The Obama Administration pulls no punches in plugging Proterra’s SC fast-charge electric bus plant. In the White House Blog, Secretary LaHood says, “When the President said that America’s small businesses need to out-innovate, and out-build their competition, he must have had Proterra in mind.”

With all the bus business coming its way, Proterra Inc.’s plate may be too full just now for a big helping of hydrolley development. But the streetcar renaissance may create an even bigger market than buses before too long. And, as Dale Hill said long ago, adaptation of fuel cell hybrid bus technology to streetcars “is not rocket science.”

In May, 2009, I visited the FTA in Washington to make a pitch for a Federally-coordinated transition from overhead trolley wires to self-powered fuel cell hybrid streetcars. If the US drifts, piecemeal, away from trolley wires, then the last cities to bet on the old technology are likely to get stuck with very large stranded investments—pun intended.

It would be better, I maintained, for FTA to say, “Read my guidelines: after (some reasonable date), if you seek overhead trolley—rather than hydrolley—money, you’d better have a compelling story.”

Long, steep grades might prove-in a few trolleys—but onboard power would still be on the way in, even if the price of copper were not soaring. And it is.

At $7 million per mile for track electrification, if the 50+ new lines forecast in 2007 by the American Passenger Transportation Association averaged seven miles in length, the incremental cost of electrifying them all would be over three billion dollars. That’s a lot to bet on an unsightly 120-year-old technology—even if it’s proven, reliable and comfortably familiar.

As a major transit innovator, Dale Hill was on good terms with the FTA long before Administrator Rogoff came to visit the new Greenville plant. Here’s hoping Dale will put in a good word for hydrolleys with the FTA…and that Proterra Inc. will soon prove that it’s literally on the right track.

About Stan Thompson

For 33 years I worked as an engineer, planner and futurist for what is now AT&T in Charlotte and Atlanta. Though I have no engineering degree, I'm a Life Member of the IEEE. Other memberships are the World Affairs Council, the local chapter of the National Association of Business Economics and the American Institute of Archaeology. (I dig international business, so to speak.)

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6 comments

  1. The relative ease of transition to hydrail or hydrolley as compared to hydrogen powered cars is compelling. It is the future of transit – environmental advantages and domestically sourced!

  2. Michael C. Robinson

    I disagree. It is no easier to build hydrogen powered trains than it is to build hydrogen powered cars. Cars tend to travel at most at 100 mph. Trains on
    the other hand can easily travel at 300 mph or faster. I like Interstate Traveler
    as a concept because it will move cars, freight, and people at high speeds while simultaneously making hydrogen available along freeways for Cars, Trucks, and SUVs to burn or use with fuel cells. The track that the Interstate Traveler uses collects the sun’s energy and effectively uses that clean energy source to produce hydrogen.

    Hybridization has long existed, look at any modern train engine that is diesel based. All modern trains are diesel/electric or hydrogen/electric that are powered on board. There may be a misconception that it is easier to build a hydrogen powered train than it is to build a hydrogen powered car when in reality both can be done fairly easily. Hydrorail in the long run is cheaper than say traditional trolleys with their overhead wires, but maglev trains that run on rails which use solar energy to produce hydrogen don’t exist yet in most parts of the world. I have yet to hear what an Interstate Traveler type maglev train that say crosses the U.S. will cost. The track is a major investment, but it can do so much more than carry maglev cars. The concept track will carry fiber optics, water, hydrogen, natural gas, etcetera.

    Trains in the U.S., a sorely neglected concept. Bullet trains exist in other parts of the world even though they were invented in the U.S. Interstate Traveler isn’t a bullet train, but it isn’t Amtrack either.

  3. Michael,

    “Easy to build” is not really the issue. Cars need ubiquity of sales, service and fuelling. Streetcar lines are small, closed systems; national ubiquity is just not an issue for them. That makes them an earlier option.

    Re maglev, picture a freight switching yard using maglev technology and maglev boxcars; mentally price it out. Try to associate that with the present and near future economic climate. It’s an elegant niche technology but perhaps never a ubiquitous one.

    Hydrolleys are a simple, local, low-cost alternative to existing urban buses and wired streetcars. They don’t relate that much to high speed rail variants.

    Proterra’s addressing small transit vehicles, moving at downtown, in-traffic speeds. Fast interstate travelers and maglev trains are a whole ‘nuther thing—appealing in their own right but not really alternatives to street transit.

    I like hydrogen cars and I will be a early adopter when that becomes an option. Year before last I drove a couple at the National Hydrogen Association Conference and Expo and I loved them.

    But the American Public Transportation Association experts report that the market for streetcars is right now. And wireless fuel-cell/battery hydrolleys will soon be a far less expensive alternative to wire-powered trolleys.

    Let’s pursue each opportunity in its natural time.

  4. Michael C. Robinson

    I can’t tell if Proterra is being promoted as a company pursuing hydrogen electric or battery electric buses. The former is such a waste.

  5. Michael, I’m pretty sure the White House Blog is promoting Proterra for its continuing integrated design of exportable transit vehicles from the ground-up, i.e., integrating body, controls and drive systems in the original vehicle design; no adaptations or retrofits.

    Their forerunner had great success in Colorado with a fleet of buses using very small gasoline engines feeding very big batteries that worked and lasted extremely well.

    If I’m “promoting” Proterra at all, it’s for their fuel cell + fast-charge battery light bus configuration, which I think is the ideal first platform for US-build hydrolleys.

  6. As i understand they haven’t yet found the right way to store hydrogen due to it’s characteristics. It’s a major setback

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