After several delays and much controversy, the Long Beach Transit Board voted on Monday to award a $12.1 million contract to purchase 10 electric buses to a US subsidiary of the Chinese firm BYD. The contract is funded mainly by the federal government’s Transit Investment for Greenhouse Gas and Energy Reduction (TIGGER) program, one of the largest federal grants yet awarded for electric buses.
The chosen design is a 40-foot aluminum bus with a range of up to 155 miles. The new buses will be deployed on pilot routes in 2014, beginning with the downtown Passport route, a short, enclosed circuit that makes stops at the Queen Mary, Aquarium of the Pacific and other tourist attractions.
Not everyone is pleased about the contract going to a Chinese-controlled company. South Carolina-based Proterra, one of five other firms that competed for the contract, sent a 16-page letter to Long Beach Transit, in which Proterra General Counsel Marc Gottschalk wrote that BYD “has presented a bus that has virtually no US-made content, has no US manufacturing [and] has no buses in revenue service in the US.” Gottschalk also said that BYD has “a history of overpromising and under-delivering.”
US Representative Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) also wrote a critical letter to Long Beach Transit in March. “Although the choice of all electric vehicles is a positive step…outsourcing manufacturing to China raises serious concerns,” he wrote. “I would hope that the transit board would consider purchasing American-made alternatives, such as those currently being used by local transit authorities like Foothill Transit. It is important to consider that helping the American economy and American workers is as important as helping the environment.”
The terms of the federal grant require that the buses be manufactured in the US. In December, BYD announced plans to begin building electric buses in the US in 2013. Senior VP Li Ke told the Xinhua News Agency that the factory will be in California, and will be able to produce 50 to 100 buses in 2014. At that time, the news site InsideEVs was skeptical, noting that BYD has made overoptimistic predictions in the past – the company has been talking about introducing its e6 electric hatchback to the US since 2009, but the launch has been delayed several times, and the company’s web site now has only vague hints that the car may someday be available in the US.
Micheal Austin, Vice President of BYD America, dismissed the objections. “This is clearly a smear tactic,” he said. “I don’t think Proterra’s general counsel has any credibility in speaking about BYD.” Austin said BYD has more than 180,000 employees and has put more than 1,000 buses in service in the last three years. “BYD has far more experience with electric buses than any other competitor, Proterra included, and has far more experience designing buses, shipping buses and building buses than Proterra ever could.”
Austin added that BYD is a publicly-traded company on the Hong Kong Exchange, and that about half its shares are owned by US entities, including Warren Buffett, the company’s largest shareholder. He said that BYD is currently negotiating lease terms for its California manufacturing facility.