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University of Utah to launch electric bus prototype

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 1 2012 3:39 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — An electric shuttle will begin operating this fall on the University of Utah campus.

The move is part of an experiment to determine whether the U.'s diesel shuttles should be replaced with vehicles that run on electricity or vehicles that use natural gas.

The U.'s Commuter Services will ultimately determine the best financial option between the electric and natural gas shuttles once the electric shuttle analysis is completed after the fall semester.

"We don't know if it (electric shuttle) will be more economical than natural gas," said Alma Allred, the director of Commuter Services.

He said electric buses tend to be less effective when driven for long periods of time because of the need to frequently charge the batteries. But with money from a $2.7 million federal grant, engineers have developed a shuttle system that includes a wireless charging station built into the ground.

James May, the vice president of business and product development for Wireless Advanced Vehicle Electrification — an auxiliary of Utah State University's Energy Dynamics Laboratory — contracted for the rights to build the charging station.

May described the charging station as a sensor plate that could be placed under asphalt. The shuttle can charge itself once it comes to a complete stop underneath the charging plate.

The grant was not used to buy the actual shuttle, however. The university purchased the bus through a Chinese company, according to Allred. The U. placed an order for the 40-foot shuttle with BYD Company Ltd., the largest manufacturer of all-electric buses in the world.

The bus will be used as an everyday commuter shuttle and will transport students through a new route specifically designed for the electric shuttle, which will run through the heart of campus in a 1.7 mile loop through the south campus TRAX station going north to the Warnock Engineering Building.

The shuttle will be on a cycle to pick up passengers coming off of eastbound TRAX trains every 15 minutes starting in time for the fall semester.

The shuttle will benefit commuters who can now avoid looking for parking at the U., said UTA spokesman Gerry Carpenter. UTA helped the University of Utah secure the grant money.

The U. currently has 16 diesel shuttles. But since beginning its Climate Action Plan, which included an effort to stop buying diesel shuttles and begin converting its shuttle fleet to natural gas, it has purchased eight natural gas shuttles.

The natural gas shuttles get 20 percent to 25 percent fewer miles per gallon compared with diesel shuttles, but natural gas is purchased at less than half the price of diesel fuel.

Since the university has several natural gas shuttles, it is currently building natural gas stations to fuel them.

E-mail: jreyes@desnews.com

Twitter: @_JulianReyes_

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