(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.