China's electric bus leadership

China's electric bus leadership

electric buses in a row
Several electric buses are parked in a parking lot in Chongqing, China.

This article is drawn from the Transport Weekly newsletter from GreenBiz, running Tuesdays.

Electric bus maker Proterra took a page from Tesla last week and brought on the German automaker Daimler as an investor and partner. Of course, it didn’t have anything to do with Tesla, despite that Proterra CEO Ryan Popple was an executive at Tesla when it closed its own deal with Daimler back in the day.

No, it actually has to do with the emerging reality that electric transit buses are becoming a really attractive product for cities. Why? City bus fleets can save on fuel costs, lower air pollution in vulnerable communities and often tap into state grants to help pay for their purchase.

Daimler not only led Proterra’s $155 million funding round, but the companies also plan to work on electrifying school buses, another growing area for battery-powered vehicles. The school bus market has that unique optics issue: Little kids breathing diesel fumes? No, thank you.

Despite the U.S.-based Proterra’s big wins in the U.S., it’s actually China that has made the EV bus a mainstream product.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance said that close to 400,000 electric buses were operating around the world last year, 99 percent of which are in China. By 2025, there are supposed to be 1.2 million electric buses, with — again — 99 percent of them in China, said BNEF. 

 At the Global Climate Action Summit earlier this month, an executive from Siemens stated that Siemens sees the electric bus market as already established, thanks to the Chinese market. Now Siemens is trying to do the same thing with electric trucks of various types all over the world. 

Because of aggressive incentives and mandates from the Chinese national government and regional Chinese governments, the country has done more than any other to bring down the cost of clean technologies. The EV bus is just one example. China also seeded the drop in costs of solar panel manufacturing, which has led to the current solar revolution. 

The U.S. actually at one point had an opportunity to have a lead in solar panel manufacturing. In the early 1980s, the U.S. was making and delivering more solar panels than any other country; far more than China, which wasn't even a blip on the radar just yet. But between 2008 and 2013, China shifted into dominating solar panel production. 

Now again, China's EV buses are helping pave the way for rest of the world's markets. Many see EV transit buses as the bellwether for electrifying other trucks and heavy-duty vehicles. So, thanks China!

We'll have a Proterra bus shuttling some attendees at VERGE this year, and we'll also have a GM Bolt for test drives (if you just want to check out the clean energy microgrid and the EVs, swing by the event with a free expo pass: V18EXPO).