Colorado wants to spark move to electric vehicles in a big way — with buses, trucks, fleets

When the engine in one of Via Mobility’s buses blew up last summer, the Boulder-based transportation service weighed whether to ditch the vehicle or replace the diesel engine.

Via did the Boulder kind of thing — it recycled the bus. And it went electric.

Now, The Hop, which circulates between downtown Boulder, the Twenty Ninth Street Mall and the University of Colorado campus, is even more noticeable for what it doesn’t do.

“It’s quiet. It has no emissions,” said Frank Bruno, VIA CEO. “And it has a great wrap on the back that says it’s Boulder’s first electric bus.”

Via Mobility Services, a nonprofit that contracts with the city of Boulder, Regional Transportation District and others to provide a range of services, wants to electrify more of its fleet. Bruno said Via decided to make the No.15 Hop electric after connecting at a conference with Lightning Systems, a Loveland company that designs and manufactures all-electric power trains for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles.

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

Taylor Anderson, of Lightning Systems, works on wires electric power commercial bus on May 29, 2019 in Loveland.

“We love it. We’d love to have a bunch of them,” Bruno said of the bus.

Gov. Jared Polis’ administration would like to see more electric buses, delivery trucks and vans on Colorado roads, too. Polis signed an executive order in January reaffirming the state’s commitment to increase the number of electric vehicles and expand the network of charging stations across the state.

A key change the executive order makes to Colorado’s electric vehicle planis that state grants to replace older gas- and diesel-fueled trucks and fleet vehicles can be used only for electric vehicles — not newer diesel and propane-fueled vehicles, as originally allowed. The money comes from the state’s nearly $70 million share of the national settlement with Volkswagen over allegations that it modified software to cheat on emissions tests.

Reining in vehicle emissions is seen as key to addressing climate change. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that in 2016, carbon dioxide emissions nationwide from the transportation sector had exceeded those from the electric power sector for the first time since the late 1970s.

Meeting new statewide goals for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions will require more than individual car owners trading in their gas burners for plug-in, battery-powered vehicles, said Will Toor, executive director of the Colorado Energy Office.

“As we look at the goals of achieving those clean-air goals in the metro area and achieving greenhouse gas emissions that are laid out as goals in legislation that has been passed this session, both of those really require dramatically reducing emissions from the heavy-duty vehicle sector in addition to passenger cars,” Toor said.

That is why Polis’ executive order directed the remaining unspent funds from the Volkswagen settlement go to electric trucks and buses “in order to start moving us down that direction,” Toor added. Most of the roughly $40 million left is expected to go for grants for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles and fleets.

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

Wires are use at Lightning Systems in the designs and manufacturing of all-electric power trains for trucks, buses, vans and other commercial vehicles on May 29, 2019 in Loveland.

The push to electrify more of the state’s vehicles gained traction in May when the state Air Quality Control Commission voted to move ahead on developing a standard for zero-emission vehicles. The rule would require that a certain percentage of manufacturers’ vehicles sold in Colorado  be electric starting with the 2023 model year.

Tim Reeser, CEO and co-founder of Lightning Systems, thinks the state is headed down the right road. He has advocated for spending a bigger share of the Volkswagen settlement funds on getting more electric delivery vans, buses and trucks rolling in Colorado.

“Our prices are expensive because of low volume. And our volume is low because it’s expensive,” Reeser said. “It’s that classic chicken and egg problem that can be solved with grant money.”

Once companies, communities and transit agencies realize the economic and environmental benefits of going electric, the success will feed on itself, Reeser said. The state of California, where Lightning Systems does about 80 percent of its business, has used grants to stimulate the medium- and heavy-duty electric vehicle sector.

“What California has done is say we’ll provide very large grants for those and that’s allowing customers to buy it from us because they can afford it,” Reeser said during a presentation in December in Fort Collins. “It’s allowing them to place bigger orders so now we can reduce the cost. Now it needs less grant (money). Now you get more of them out there. Now the snowball starts rolling down hill.”

Sara Forni leads the corporate electric vehicle program for Ceres, a national nonprofit working with companies and investors on social and environmental issues. She said there’s a strong business case for corporations to cut their transportation costs  by electrifying their fleets, saving on fuel and maintenance expenses. In turn, she said, that helps efforts to curb greenhouse-gas emissions.

“Companies actually own, manage or operate over half of the vehicles on the road today, so they really represent a great opportunity for us to reduce emissions from the transportation sector,” Forni said.

The range of electric vehicle models available is expanding, including for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, Forni said. Meanwhile, she added, analysts are predicting electric vehicles and internal combustion vehicles will cost roughly the same by the early to mid 2020s.

However, Forni echoed Reeser’s comments that demand will further drive down costs, which likely will accelerate electrification of commercial fleets.

To that end, Lightning Systems now offers five different powertrains, including for commercial and government fleets. The company recently announced that it has new options for the Ford F-59 commercial van. Lightning works closely with the auto manufacturers to certify the powertrains, which are installed by companies that regularly customize commercial vehicles.

“Very few commercial vehicles are bought as completed,” Reeser said in an interview. “When someone buys a delivery truck, it’s an amalgamation. We plug right into this.”

Via Mobility didn’t wait for state funding to go electric. It paid $75,000 of the $270,000 expense of converting its bus from diesel to electric. Lightning Systems covered the rest.

The company subsidized the “repower” in return for Via’s data on the vehicle’s efficiency, driver feedback and other information, Reeser said. The conversion of a transit bus to electric runs from $300,000 to $450,000, depending on the battery’s capacity.

A brand-new electric bus costs about $800,000 and a new diesel-powered bus is about $430,000, Bruno of Via said. He hopes the state grants can be used to convert diesel engines to electric, which will be more affordable and will promote recycling.

After glitches with a charging station and with some smaller batteries for the ignition, the electric Hop “is now on route each day and is thriving,” Bruno said.

“It’s making runs for a good solid 12 hours on the route and comes back with 30 percent left on the charge,” Bruno said.

Reeser said a big benefit of an electric bus, delivery truck or van is low maintenance costs: no oil changes, far fewer brake changes and overall just fewer moving parts that have to be taken care off. There’s no gas to pay for, although the battery has to be charged. Via’s facility in east Boulder has solar arrays and a natural gas generator to help provide power.

“A typical electric delivery truck will save about $2,000 a month, half for fuel and half for maintenance,” Reeser said.

As more and more of the electricity on the grid comes from renewable sources, the benefits of driving electric vehicles will increase, said Matt Frommer, senior  transportation associate at  the Boulder-based Southwest Energy Efficiency Project.

And Xcel Energy-Colorado has proposed a change that would better accommodate businesses that have to charge large electric vehicles. RTD recently reported that it costs more to operate its electric buses on Denver’s 16th Street Mall than diesel buses due to Xcel Energy’s “demand charge.”

The charge is a price tier typically added to commercial and industrial customers’ bills to recover a utility’s capital costs of building a system that can provide enough power to meet peak demand when needed. The proposal Xcel Energy filed May 24 with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission would allow businesses or transit agencies to time the charging in a way that will lower costs.

“That definitely strengthens the economic argument for electric vehicles,” Frommer said.

Kate Williams