Cap Metro celebrates 'Earth Day' by gearing up for electric buses

The old Serta mattress warehouse in North Austin was torn down today, but what's being built in its place will be a good thing for the Earth, according to Capital Metro CEO Randy Clarke.

"What we want to build is a smart-charging yard. A yard that knows when the grid is expensive or not expensive and knows when to charge and when not to charge," Clarke said.

What will be charged there: an all-electric fleet of buses.  

"Climate change is real and it's happening. And everyone has to do their part. And Cap Metro's part is to build the most sustainable fleet possible," Clarke said. 

The future smart-charging yard is on McNeil Road right next to Cap Metro's North Ops facility. The demolition of the old mattress warehouse was a backdrop for Cap Metro's announcement.

"The process started with environmental remediation of this building which by the way involved moving 40 raccoons and gently relocating them," said Austin City Council member and Cap Metro board member Ann Kitchen.

When it's done, Clarke says the smart yard will be able to charge more than 200 electric buses.

"Instead of a flat yard you'll have an actual electric infrastructure above all the buses and they can all park in big rows and get charged throughout the grid," Clarke said.

As Cap Metro gets the ball rolling on the bus-charging yard for Earth Day, the Cap Metro Board also took a vote to get the transportation authority's first two electric buses delivered by the end of this year.

"It means 3 things: it means a better environment which is good for climate change, it means cleaner air which is healthier for people, it means lower cost," Kitchen said.      

According to Bay Scoggin with Texas Public Interest Research Group, maintenance on electric buses is easier than traditional buses.

"An electric bus has 90% fewer moving pieces than a traditional combustion engine.  That means it's a lot easier to work on," said Scoggin.

Charging them should also not be a problem.

"For the City of Austin that's blessed to have our own electric utility, we can use some of the excess renewable energy that we produce at night to charge the buses when we need them the most," said Tom Smith with Texas Electric Transportation Resources Alliance.

With electric buses on the way, the old traditional buses will eventually become a thing of the past. Cap Metro says on Monday the board will also be voting on a procurement for the last diesel vehicles they'll ever buy.

"It's a small order and it's really 'State of Good Repair.' So we have some buses that are 18 years old and we've got to get those off the street," Clarke said.

Clarke says it's all zero-emissions from now on and that the technology these new electric buses are equipped with is advanced.

"People get caught up I think in 'electric car.' We're talking a bus. A bus has to drive all day every day. These are almost like a mini power plant in some ways," Clarke said.

And "electric" paves the way for "autonomous."

"Well you can't really do automated and connected vehicles really well unless it's electric," Clarke said. 

Construction on the charging yard is due to start this fall and it could be ready to charge buses in summer of 2020.

Cap Metro says they're looking for grant money to start buying even more electric vehicles.