Proterra Head Talks Electric Bus, Diesel, Sustainability

Recently, Scott Cooney, founder of the Important Media group which includes Gas2, CleanTechnica and a dozen other websites that focus on sustainability, sat down for a chat with Ryan Popple, CEO of Proterra, the American electric bus company that is revolutionizing urban transportation.

Proterra electric bus charging system

We have reported many times on Proterra, which makes it buses out of carbon fiber to make them lighter, stronger, and more durable than conventional buses. It is also pioneering advanced charging and battery technologies that keep it at the leading edge of its industry. The conversation began with what Popple sees as the future of electric bus transportation.

“By 2020, every major fleet should be in implementation mode. By 2025, I think 50% of new purchases will be EV. Diesel, hybrid, and CNG will go completely extinct in transit, starting in 2020. By 2030, there may not be a diesel on the road in California and Washington State. The cycle will start accelerating. Diesel bus manufacturers’ growth rate will turn negative. They will lose access to bank and equity capital and they will go bankrupt.

“As the supply shrinks, the cost of fossil fuel vehicles and spare parts will inflate, further disadvantaging the legacy tech. I would not want to be the last agency to purchase diesel or CNG. The residual value of that tech will be zero. You’ll have stranded assets, like CNG fast fill stations with nothing to refuel and diesel spare parts that get auctioned.”

Proterra buses were featured in Philadelphia during the Democratic National Convention. Here’s how that came about.

“We have a new customer, SEPTA (Southeast Pennsylvania Transit Authority) that is replacing overhead wire trolleys with our EVs. Since the DNC selected Philly, and wanted to host a conference that emphasized environmental sustainability, the partners in Philly, including SEPTA, wanted to show off their greenest innovation. The local energy company, PECO, is an Exelon subsidiary, and they too wanted to be part of the story of energy technology. It all came together really well, and we were proud to help leaders in the Democratic Party experience new technology.”

Conversely, the Republican party wanted nothing to do with sustainability, climate change, or global warming. That got Popple’s juices flowing. He remembers when the Republican Party stood for something instead of opposing everything.

“If we were invited, like Apple, we may have bowed out. I wouldn’t deploy our product at an event that facilitates denial of science and climate change. It is unfortunate, I have a lot of friends and family members that used to vote GOP. I’ve voted GOP in past elections, but I’ve found the party lacking leadership on energy technology and environmental stewardship since then. Climate change is absolutely occurring, and at a frightening pace. We’re already losing shellfish production on the West Coast, near where I live. California is parched by drought, ravaged by the largest fires our first responders have ever experienced. The data are statistically irrefutable. It’s just chemistry and math.

“Whether he wins or loses in November, I hope a new GOP emerges from the Trump candidacy, and rejects concepts like Drill, Baby, Drill. The U.S. oil sector has cost investors more losses than a thousand Solyndras. China is playing to win in the 21st century energy game, we’re arguing about coal mining jobs that don’t exist and never will again. Air quality is the number 1 cause of preventable death in our cities.

“The Republican Party really frustrates me as a technology company CEO. I’m a technologist, a veteran, an Eagle Scout, an outdoorsman. I can’t imagine raising kids in this country and not teaching them to fish for king salmon in Oregon, surf in California, climb at Yosemite, snowboard in Utah. Where are the original values of the Republican Party these days, where is Theodore Roosevelt? He was the ultimate Republican environmentalist.

“If you love this country, protect it, defend it. Like they say, ‘Don’t mess with Texas.’ Patriotism is more than just yellow ribbons and flag waving, it is having a love and passion for the land and earth we’ve been blessed with. We are the stewards of a beautiful, powerful country– our job is to ensure our great-grandchildren inherit a country that is valuable, not drilled out, blasted, polluted, depleted. Look at what Haiti has suffered due to deforestation alone. Had Republicans like TR not been there to take on Big Timber, we’d be a larger version of Haiti, environmentally.”

Finally, Cooney asked, “As the CEO of a cleantech startup, what advice would you offer to others in your position that are working to make the world a better place while also trying to maintain shareholder value?” He got this answer.

“Priority one, make your company a commercial success. Focus on having a great product, a huge technology advantage. Hire the very best people. Keep the bar high. It isn’t pleasant, but you can’t be patient about performance. Technology companies are very demanding, we aren’t chasing 3% year over year growth, so the people you hire have to be better than the people that staff mature companies.

“I emphasize company performance first because you won’t get extra credit for being a ‘green’ company. There is no such thing as clean tech. Just tech. Proterra is a tech company that has a superior technology for urban transit. Are we a sustainable company — of course. We wouldn’t bother working on the future of transportation if we weren’t taking on pollution and climate change.

“This company performance isn’t easy. Big Oil, Big Coal (now bankrupt), politicians, diesel OEMs — they all want you to fail. When you do fail, they will point to your company as an example of why we can’t change, why we can’t move away from fossil fuels. If you’re going to work in technology, and take on the largest, dirtiest companies out there, you are David vs. Goliath. You’ve only got one shot, so you better make it count.

“The good news is that tech and science are on your side. Your opportunity is to exploit the bias these large industries have to not innovate. They are fat, dumb and happy. Focus, concentrate, and out-work them. I work seven days a week, I dream about Proterra in my sleep. I’m smarter than my competitors and my passion for the environment drives me to work harder than they would think possible. That’s what I hire for in my company, and that’s the culture we’re building. We talk about why we come to work, and why this matters.

“That’s a big advantage. A lot of people at big companies are just punching a clock, they are bored half the time. We offer a purpose, a mission, meaning to our work. That’s a big deal, especially for Millennials. The story of Proterra’s success has very little to do with me, I’m one of 200 team members, and they are excellent. I would bet on them whether or not I was running the place.”

Popple’s words resonate far beyond the world of building electric buses. They encapsulate the ways in which traditional notions of capitalism must change in order not to burden the world with so many waste products it can no longer support human habitation. They should be taught at every business school as part of the basic curriculum because they give the lie to the notion that greed is good. It is not. It is a loaded gun pointed directly at our heads. The wonder is that so many are anxious to help pull the trigger.

Source: CleanTechnica  Photo credit: Proterra

 

Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.