WI: Under the hood with MTU: La Crosse trailblazes electric bus service in cold weather climate

Feb. 5, 2024
In 2022, the city department became one of the first in the state to introduce fully electric buses. MTU has since become a model for other Midwestern cities seeking to implement electric public transportation fleets.

Feb. 1—The La Crosse MTU is two years into its latest drive toward a more environmentally sustainable mass transit fleet.

In 2022, the city department became one of the first in the state to introduce fully electric buses. MTU has since become a model for other Midwestern cities seeking to implement electric public transportation fleets.

The electric launch was a trip into uncharted territory for MTU officials. Electric bus lines remain uncommon in cold weather climates, and La Crosse was not afforded a trial run that bigger cities might be granted.

"Our buses can't be tested here, we're not big enough," said MTU Director Adam Lorentz. "If we bring a bus into play, it has to be in service."

Lorentz said the two new buses were the biggest adjustment the MTU fleet has seen.

Mechanics adjust

"My staff has 50 years of combined experience, but they've never built a bus that's electric," Lorentz said. "We had to break it down in different stages: the infrastructure, the buses and the batteries. We did a lot of research and worked a lot with the manufacturers."

Lorentz said rapidly evolving battery technology affords his department more security on their bets with the electric buses.

Instead of maintaining the same batteries for their entire lifespan, MTU leases the bus batteries for six years at a time. The batteries take 3 hours to charge to full capacity with a 150-kilowatt charger powered by an Xcel Energy transformer used specifically by MTU. Every charge gives each bus enough power for a 12-hour shift. A typical at-home charger for a Tesla model car can take anywhere from five to 12 hours to fully charge.

The buses experienced some reduction in battery life when temperatures plummeted below zero during a January cold snap, but services were not interrupted and the buses operated as expected. The MTU averaged 3,320 miles per breakdown across all buses in 2022. The department hopes to double the mileage by the end of 2024.

Hands-on learning

The MTU has three bus technicians to service the fleet around the clock. Wyatt Wolfe Jr., an MTU technician, earns his suffix from his father, Wyatt, who was an MTU bus technician before him. Wolfe Jr. will celebrate two decades at MTU on March 1. He said that becoming a technician only takes two years of school and the rest is learned in the field.

"This is mainly hands-on. You'll maybe get companies who come in and teach you a thing or two, but 90% of what we learn on these buses is hands-on right here," Wolfe Jr. said. "You just keep passing that knowledge as you go."

Wolfe Jr. had to re-learn his work when the electric buses arrived. Proterra, which manufactures the electric buses fielded by MTU, brings technicians like Wolfe Jr. to a two-day boot camp to learn how to maintain the new buses.

For Wolfe Jr., the batteries in the fleet have seen no issues in breakdowns or service. He said the bigger hurdle is learning the new wiring. MTU's hybrid and clean diesel buses are the same model bus with different engines, but the electric bus is completely different.

More updates

MTU expects to replace nine more buses in the near future.

The older buses in the fleet use outdated diesel engines and are hitting the end of their lifespans. One bus has served routes since 2001, 12 years past its expected lifespan, and is still in operation. MTU will replace the older buses with a mix of electric, hybrid and clean diesel buses.

"The biggest thing is reduction of harm to the environment. That doesn't mean we can overhaul our fleet. I will be honest, in cold weather, the batteries deplete quicker. So, if I had an entire fleet of battery buses right now, I couldn't serve the public," Lorentz noted on keeping a mix of bus types in the fleet.

MTU acquired its first hybrid buses in 2013 as it sought to shift into more sustainable energy solutions for transportation. Last year, MTU purchased two more hybrid buses to replace older diesel-only buses in the fleet.

"After a 12-year period, the cost washes itself out. You're depleting your footprint on Earth and saving on energy with hybrids, but your cost-wise on service and repairs gets pretty close to what it was with regular diesel," Wolfe Jr. said.

All of MTU's buses are custom built to the department's specifications. The funding is available for new buses, but waiting on a state contract and delayed deliveries are holding up the purchases. Before the pandemic, a new bus could arrive in 12 to 18 months. Lorentz said that post-pandemic, a new bus could take 18 to 24 months to arrive after being contracted.

"We have a lot of people that come to see how the buses are doing. It's becoming a model for others cities of similar sizes and cultures to introduce electric buses into their own areas because like us, they are taking a much larger bet on their service," Lorentz said.

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