Proterra, the American company the city purchased the electric buses from between 2019-2022, is in Chapter 11 filing for bankruptcy protection. Edmonton’s on a list of creditors, seeking $1.3 million and fulfillment of service and warranties
Just six per cent of the Edmonton Transit System’s 1,000-bus fleet are electric buses, but those are very squeaky wheels.
Three-quarters of the city’s 60-bus electric fleet is in the garage with poor immediate prospects for parts to fix them.
Proterra, the American company the city purchased the electric buses from between 2019-2022, is in Chapter 11 filing for bankruptcy protection. Edmonton’s on a list of creditors, seeking $1.3 million and fulfillment of service and warranties.
ETS has traditionally been careful to keep parts supplied, said Steve Bradshaw, president and business agent for Amalgamated Transit Union Local 569, which represents workers in operations, maintenance and security at ETS.
During the pandemic, when other transit properties were floundering, ETS had spare parts to spare. But not with Proterra’s warehouses shut down.
“Parts are not available to properly run their buses … it’s very problematic,” Bradshaw said.
Still touted online as “super-efficient” and “efficient financially,” the buses aren’t currently living up to expectations.
Even if a battery powering an electric motor means less maintenance for 20 years, “if you can’t keep that bus on the road for other parts around (the battery), then you can’t call that bus efficient,” Bradshaw said.
It takes a diesel-powered on-board heater to keep the body of the bus warm. And despite $200,000 in special blankets to keep all those batteries toasty, the Proterra buses are still feeling that northern Alberta chill in their skimpy range.
Some electric bikes can go farther on a charge than an ETS electric bus.
While the website touts mileage up to 340 km on a charge, on Edmonton streets the stylish bus is a sluggish employee. It has a range of up to 117 km, which gets it on the streets from 5 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. before it has to hit the charger, and then gets back out from 2:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
The wheels on a diesel ETS bus can go round and round all day. Out at 4:30 a.m. to pick up commuters all day, the workhorse can get home in the stable at 1:30 a.m. without ever tanking up, Bradshaw said.
Drivers ‘can’t fit in the cab properly’
Perhaps the most troublesome human issue is the Goldilocks proportions of that model’s bus cab, not well-suited to drivers who were either larger or smaller than average in stature.
“The design of the cab has been something that’s been trouble for us. People can’t drive them safely because they can’t fit in the cab properly,” Bradshaw said, noting there has been multiple Workers’ Compensation Board claims related to square peg-type injuries.
“Our biggest problem with them from a union perspective was that we had people book off with injury because of the cab, enough that it caused a ramp-up in our ‘duty to accommodate.’”
The drivers who have issues with fitting in the cab then have to avoid shifts driving a Proterra bus.
Edmonton had electric-fuel issues decades ago with the old trolley buses. Issues with overhead electricity resulted in diesel buses being used for backup, leading to the adoption of a diesel fleet, Bradshaw said.
Ongoing refurbishment of the fleet requires city council to take action as vehicles age out.
“Every bus has a retirement window. The retirements for battery electric have been moved up because of difficulty maintaining them and keeping them on the road,” he said.
“We do have a lot of trouble keeping those buses on the road.”
As for using electricity-powered buses goes, Bradshaw’s optimistic in the long run.
“I think it’s a viable technology, and I think it will get better and better,” Bradshaw said, citing hydrogen fuel as a source that seems to be working for the city’s lone hydrogen-fuelled bus with, predictably, its own share of bugs.
On Wednesday, the Proterra website was still plugging Edmonton’s buy-in as a fit for the city’s energy transition strategy and the climate change adaptation strategy, telling the story of an ETS driver’s love for the new electric buses.
Geoffrey H. Dabbs is a partner with Gehlen Dabbs Cash LLP, a Vancouver company doing insolvency and commercial litigation.
He said the U.S.-based Proterra has filed for protection under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code for a plan that would keep them out of bankruptcy but likely paying creditors less than they’re owed.
Edmonton’s claims include $1.3 million they’ve spent fixing up buses, but they want assurances that services and warranty claims will continue.
“Proterra wants another company to take over residual claims, and Edmonton wants to make sure someone else is creditworthy,” Dabbs said.
Edmonton could end up with nothing because the city is near the bottom of the food chain as an unsecured claim, but if Proterra can stay out of bankruptcy and the U.S. creditors can agree, they may get their ask.
“There’s nothing much more Edmonton can do right now, other than hope the plan is in its favour and Edmonton gets what it wants,” Dabbs said.