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Longmont-based UQM continues to power forward, even through the challenges

If you’ve ridden the Regional Transportation District’s quiet shuttle buses that run up and down the 16th Street Mall in Denver, you’ve likely experienced UQM Technologies’ products without even knowing it.

Thirty of the 36 buses in the mall fleet have had UQM electric generators and motor controllers in them since the early 2000s. This month, the company received a contract from RTD to refurbish the UQM components in those buses, which collectively have run millions of miles since the parts were first installed.

Joe Mitchell, UQM’s vice president of operations, said what’s being done with the generators and controllers is the equivalent of rebuilding an engine or transmission in a traditional vehicle.

“Those (components) have gone well beyond their designed life,” Mitchell said. “So this allows us to give them a second life at a reduced cost.”

RTD first ordered the hybrid-electric buses around 2000 from an English company. They came with their own generators and motor controllers but there were problems almost from the outset, according RTD general superintendent of maintenance Dean Shaklee.

“We just weren’t having any reliability with the original (controllers),” said Shaklee, who’s been with RTD 33 years. He said it didn’t help that it took shipping the parts back to England for repair.

So in the early 2000s Shaklee called UQM’s then-CEO, Bill Rankin, whom he had known for years. Rankin agreed to install UQM generators and controllers into the buses.

The UQM parts have run reliably since then, Shaklee said, and they helped RTD win a Department of Energy award for being the earliest mass transit system in the country to roll out an entire hybrid-electric fleet.

“Even today I don’t think there are a lot that are running on alternative fuels,” Shaklee said. “They’re usually run on gas or diesel.”

RTD’s mall buses run on a combination of compressed natural gas and electricity. A 2.5-liter Ford motor powered
by CNG drives an electric generator that charges a set of traditional lead-acid batteries. The batteries send power to the motors on the bus’s two rear wheels. The motor controllers, one on the generator and one on each of the rear-wheel motors, keep the system in sync.

“They were certainly one of the first to combine the alternative fuel with the electric drive train,” said Rich Piellisch, editor of FleetsandFuels.com, a publication that monitors the alternative fuels and transportation industries.
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