If Lawrence is really serious about being a high-tech city of the future, John Powell has a great billboard to advertise it: a fleet of electric buses.
"You want to send a signal that you're a visionary community, that you are not just any other city; electric buses do that," said Powell, executive director of the Advanced Transportation Technology Institute, who was in town Wednesday to speak to Kansas University and city leaders about the technology.
Powell told university and transit leaders that he thinks either KU or the city has an excellent chance of being a testing ground for new electric bus technology.
"I think you have a real opportunity here," Powell said. "You have a lot of expertise at KU, you have a good transit system and a strong state department of transportation."
The latest technology in the electric bus industry is a new charging system that allows the batteries of buses to be charged while they're still on their route rather than being taken back to their garages, Powell said. Current technology requires the batteries of electric buses to be charged about every 90 miles, which has been a stumbling block for many communities wanting to convert their systems to electric.
Powell, though, said he thought a system such as the shuttle service provided on the KU campus could be a good testing ground. Robert Honea, the new director of the KU Transportation Research Institute, agreed.
Honea, who started at KU about two months ago, is a former board member of Powell's Advanced Transportation Technology Institute, which is considered one of the larger electric bus research organizations in the country.
"I was coming back from the office one day and got a mouthful of fumes from one of our diesel buses," Honea said. "I thought, 'I don't know why we put up with this. There's a better way.'"
Honea said that it makes sense for KU to take up electric bus technology as a field of research. He said the KU Transportation Research Institute is designed to handle such projects.
"We're really going to examine all the possibilities to bring a demonstration project here," Honea said. "What I hope I can do is provide the catalyst to make it happen."
University and city leaders will be watching with interest. Leaders of both the city and university transit systems have said they're interested in alternative fuel technology, but they said economic issues were a concern. Electric buses are traditionally 20 percent to 25 percent more expensive to purchase than traditional diesel buses, Powell said. The buses obviously save on fuel costs, but other specialized equipment, battery replacement and training costs can make operational costs nearly equal.
"If we could become a part of a demonstration project and tap into some alternative funding that way, it might become more economically feasible," said Danny Kaiser, assistant director of parking and transit for KU. "Lawrence is a very green community. I'm sure people would like the idea."
Powell said the electric buses improve air quality because true electric buses have no tailpipe emissions. He said communities that use electric buses almost always receive significant amounts of positive publicity.
In Chattanooga, Tenn., where Powell's organization is based, the community has 22 electric buses and now markets the unique buses as part of their tourism efforts.
"I can't tell you how many magazine covers Chattanooga has been on because of it," Powell said. "And we have people who come to town just to ride the buses."