Electric-bus startup Proterra shifts into higher gear

Improved battery technology is increasing the range and lowering the cost, but the emissions-free vehicles still face stiff competition from natural gas. And Silicon Valley-based Proterra has a tough rival as well — China’s BYD, which also builds electric buses in the U.S.

LOS ANGELES — Tesla’s Elon Musk transformed electric cars into objects of desire. Can Proterra do the same for the electric city bus?

Nope. It’s not even trying.

“Not sexy, for sure,” Josh Ensign, chief operating officer for the electric bus startup, said with a laugh.

But looks aren’t everything. The market for battery-powered electric buses seems ready to rocket. Orders in the U.S. are gaining traction.

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In January, King County Executive Dow Constantine announced a deal to buy 73 zero-emission, battery-powered buses from Silicon Valley-based Proterra, and his intention to buy 47 more from Proterra or its rivals by 2020. This past week Park City, Utah, ordered six to serve the mountain resort community.

Proterra last week also said it had raised $55 million in investment capital atop $290 million raised earlier. The new money comes from Al Gore’s investment fund and BMW’s venture-capital arm. GM Ventures and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers had already chipped in.

Proterra Chief Executive Ryan Popple said an initial public stock offering might happen this year or next.

The company is increasing its presence in California, with a new factory in the City of Industry, southeast of Los Angeles, to supplement an existing plant in Greeneville, S.C.

“There’s a level of interest in this field that there wasn’t five years ago,” said Popple, a former finance director at Tesla. (Ensign left Tesla last year as head of manufacturing.)

About 56,000 public transit system buses are operating in the U.S. Most burn diesel or gasoline fuel and spew nasty fumes from internal combustion…

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