Proterra, which President Joe Biden once said was “making me look good,” sold hundreds of electric buses to municipalities across North America. Every transit district Just The News spoke with, except one, has inoperable buses awaiting repairs.
Across the country, towns and cities of various sizes envisioned an electrified public transit system that could shuttle residents with vehicles that produced no carbon-filled exhaust.
Many of those communities purchased buses from Silicon Valley-based Proterra, which was able to produce 550 buses over its 19-year existence before it went bankrupt in August.
The company announced last month it had concluded auctions as part of its Chapter 11 bankruptcy process, and in the wake of its collapse public transit systems tell Just The News they have inoperable buses that can’t be repaired because the company is slow to supply parts to fix them.
Early on, the company’s customers were noticing issues with the buses. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority purchased five Proterra buses in 2019. The company promised ranges of 100 to 120 miles on a single charge, but the authority found they ran as little as 60 to 100 miles on a charge — even less in cold weather.
For a while, things looked pretty good for the company. Proterra’s initial public offering in January 2021 raised nearly $650 million, which was three times more than its revenues.
In April 2021, President Joe Biden took a virtual tour of a Proterra facility, using it to promote his infrastructure plan, which included approximately $6.5 billion in grants, according to the Wall Street Journal, to help replace diesel-powered school and transit buses with electric vehicles. “The fact is, you’re making me look good,” the president said.
The giveaways were in addition to $40,000 per vehicle in tax credits from the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) for purchasing electric commercial vehicles. Proterra also benefited from tax credits for its battery manufacturing.
Jennifer Granholm, Biden’s energy secretary, had served on the company’s board. In May 2021, before assuming the lead at the Department of Energy, Granholm sold all her Proterra holdings, providing her with net capital gains of $1.6 million.
It’s the essence of crony capitalism,” David Blackmon, energy writer and analyst, told Just The News.
As the bankruptcy proceedings wind through the process, many of the communities that own the buses, which cost about $1 million each, are struggling to keep them running.
The San Joaquin Regional Transit District (RTD), which includes Stockton, California, was an early adopter of electric buses, purchasing two from Proterra in 2013. Since then, the RTD bought 15 more. Six of the 17 total are currently inoperable and awaiting parts.
RTD is thankful for its partnership with Proterra and its experience, including lessons learned as battery-electric technology evolves and continues to advance,” Merab Talamantes, RTD project controls manager, told Just The News, adding that two electric buses within the RTD fleet from another manufacturer are also broken down.
Based on communications with the company, she said, RTD expects the parts to arrive within 30 to 90 days.
Talamantes said the RTD has also had challenges with its bus charging infrastructure. The district operates four 500-kilowatt fast charging stations and five 60-kilowatt chargers. Proterra doesn’t have a valid California business license to complete work on the RTD chargers.
There are also problems with the chargers’ software, which is proprietary. Since RTD staff doesn’t have the tools or training to troubleshoot or repair them, it has to rely solely on Proterra to provide that service. This has left one charger inoperable for the last four months due to limited Proterra personal and software troubleshooting tools, Talemantes said.