Seneca: Blazing a Trail with Electric Buses

In September, the town of Seneca in Oconee County became the first in the nation to have a fully electric fleet of buses.

The EcoRide buses, which are made by Proterra in Greenville, have been incorporated into fleets in larger cities across the country, from Seattle to Nashville. Earlier this year, Worcester, Mass. purchased three Proterra buses, making 13% of their fleet electric. At the time, no other city in North America had more than that--until Seneca obliterated that record by going to 100% electric.

The town of Seneca started in 1873 where two railroad lines intersected, and today, its proximity to Clemson University and the natural beauty of Lake Keowee makes it an attractive place to work and visit. And it's close enough to Greenville that the manufacturer could take potential customers to see the buses in action.

Ed Halbig, Planning Director for Town of Seneca, says, "Now Proterra has a client in their backyard, so we look at ourselves as a marketing partner with Proterra. People who come in to see their factory can then come over and see the first electric fleet in action. If we have other agencies, possibly other countries coming to look at the first all-electric system, ideally that brings some business and tourist traffic to our city. It won't be incredible numbers, but it puts people in hotels and restaurants and they can avail themselves of Seneca's hospitality."

Those are just some of the intangible economic impact benefits the town will see, but the hard dollars of fuel costs are very tangible, and the savings are significant. A typical diesel bus gets four to five miles per gallon, and the cost of running an electric bus is more like the equivalent of 18 miles per gallon--nearly quadrupling the efficiency.

Seneca contracts with Clemson Area Transit, known as CATbus. Seneca owns the buses--as it says on the side of the bus, "Driven by CATbus, powered by Seneca"--but the drivers, who are cross-trained to drive both the diesel-fueled Clemson buses and the electric Seneca buses, are employed by CAT. All of the bus routes within the town of Seneca or running between Seneca and Clemson are serviced by the electric buses.

The buses and chargers were purchased through a $4.1 million federal TIGGER III grant (which stands for Transit Investments for Greenhouse Gas and Energy Reduction). Another $1.8 million Livability grant was used to build an all-electric maintenance facility. The 36-month project is monitored by the Center for Transportation and the Environment out of Atlanta. CTE monitors data for costs savings, environmental impact, trends, and so on. The town, in turn, works out pitfalls and best practices and passes those on to CTE.

Along with the buses, the town purchased three charging stations: two fast chargers, which the buses lock into for six minutes or so for a quick refill, and a slow charger, to which a bus can be connected overnight or while technicians work on the bus. One of the fast chargers is downtown at the bus hub, and the second is at Oconee Memorial Hospital, which is a major passenger stop. The two chargers are on separate electrical systems so that, in the event of a power outage on one, the other one can power the buses.

Another reason for choosing the hospital as the second charging station is that the town is looking forward: If service expands to other areas of the county, such as Walhalla, the hospital would be the logical hub for that service. Currently, the Seneca bus service averages 22,000 riders per month.