Companies rev up green transportation products

While one B.C. early-stage company debuts its electric bus, other local businesses, including Vancouver’s Westport Innovations, have struggled to make a profit in the sector 

Phillip Oldridge, CEO of Vancouver’s GreenPower Motor Co., prepares to board the company’s demonstration transit bus, which is powered electrically | Dominic Schaefer 

A diesel-powered tour bus, jet black with its windows tinted, pulls around a tight corner outside the Vancouver Convention Centre and roars by the mix of tourists and business people standing outside a Starbucks.

“You see this bus driving by there – that minibus – how loud that is? Those days are done,” said Phillip Oldridge, CEO of Vancouver’s GreenPower Motor Co.

Behind Oldridge sits a green-and-white transit bus, which debuted in Vancouver October 7. It comes with a US$895,000 price tag but does not come equipped with an engine, a transmission or a fuel tank.

Instead, GreenPower’s EV350 relies on an electric drive system, allowing it to hum silently along the road for up to 250 kilometres before needing a recharge.

The company has been taking the display model to North American trade shows, transit agencies and rental car companies to generate interest in the newly unveiled high-tech bus. GreenPower aims to sell five to 10 models, which are assembled in China and California, in the next six months.

But capitalizing on the market for low- or no-emission vehicles has been a long and winding road other B.C. companies have struggled to navigate.

In 2009, Whistler deployed a fleet of 20 hydrogen fuel-cell buses powered by technology developed at Burnaby-based Ballard Power Systems (TSX:BLD).

The program ended in March after BC Transit determined the zero-emission buses were too expensive to maintain because hydrogen fuel had to be shipped from Quebec to Whistler to keep the buses powered.

But Ballard did manage to sell more than two dozen of its fuel-cell modules for buses in other countries before the program was scrapped.

The company, however, has never turned a profit throughout its 35-year existence.

Meanwhile, Vancouver’s Westport Innovations (TSX:WPT) announced September 30 it was reducing its revenue outlook for 2014 to between $130 million and $140 million, down from $175 million to $185 million.

The company develops compressed natural gas (CNG) engines, which produce far fewer emissions than gasoline- or diesel-powered engines.

It, too, has never posted a profit.

Vancouver-based joint venture Cummins Westport specializes in CNG engines for transit buses running in B.C. and Los Angeles, among other regions.

“The transit markets, you know, they’re always early adopters of technology. If it’s cleaner, that’s part of the mandate,” said Jeff Campbell, Cummins Westport’s marketing and bus segment director.

He said the more expensive CNG buses have closed to within a 10% to 12% margin of diesel bus costs, and have become more popular with transit authorities.

And despite the even higher costs of the EV350 – it’s about twice as expensive as a diesel or a CNG bus – GreenPower chairman Fraser Atkinson said he believes the future of transit is in electric vehicles.

While GreenPower has had introductory talks with TransLink, those early meetings have not turned into sales.

“There’s been an adoption of this kind of technology at various centres across North America, but there is a bit of a holdback or reluctance on the part of some organizations simply because they look at it as a halo effect,” Atkinson told reporters aboard a test run of the electric bus.

He estimated fuel savings to be $50,000 to $60,000 per year over a 12-year span, which he said makes a great economic case.

“It’s expensive but it pays for itself.”