Zero emissions or bust

The path to sustainability is paved with e-buses, innovative ideas and powerful partnerships. Learn how Genentech, part of Roche, is leading the charge.

“First and foremost, it’s about sustainability,” says Andy Jefferson, Director of Transportation for Genentech. “Being able to go to zero emissions is a big win. From the beginning, we’ve said ‘Hey, we need to do this because it’s the right thing to do.’”

Genentech’s commuter programme was robust even before its first battery-powered double-decker buses launched in summer 2018. Low vacancy and high housing prices in the Bay Area mean that many people commute – typically some 10000 to the Genentech campus alone. To keep pace with the demands of a sought-after workforce in a tech mecca, Genentech operates a fleet of ferries, carpools, vanpools and commuter buses to move people around and across the scenic Bay Area. Until the pandemic, Genentech transported about 2500 people a day from as far away as Vacaville (100 kilometres) and San Jose (67 kilometres) in buses with comfy seats, wi-fi and power outlets. Another several hundred commuters used the ferries, carpools and vanpools daily.

A new route

Traditional diesel buses are noisy, smelly and can be expensive to maintain. Most notably, they leave a big carbon footprint on our planet through greenhouse gas emissions. So Genentech partnered with BYD, a Chinese bus maker with a North American headquarters in Lancaster, California.

Having a fleet of e-buses means nothing if you can’t reliably power them. These big batteries take more juice than the standard computer, or even a typical electric car. Project infrastructure required conduit and wiring under a new parking lot, with a charging depot that provides an adequate number of stations. Genentech worked with Pacific Gas & Electric to install a new transformer that could handle the power load. And there’s complex logistical planning to keep the entire fleet charged and get each bus to its destination – with enough of a charge to also get back.

Powering up with partners

While running cleaner, more energy-efficient buses is a big part of the equation on the path to sustainability, there’s more to it than that. Efficient routes and optimised return trips are equally important, and that’s where partnerships add power. Under a pilot programme, Genentech paired with four local companies last year to share available seats on their buses with other riders.

Genentech has partnered with another local tech company for many years in a mutual aid agreement: Genentech provides parking for their buses, and they provide buses and drivers for some Genentech routes.

“We also share our buses with another company” Andy says. “That’s worked really well. We’ve been able to find this convergence of commute patterns. So we’re able to save a lot of money, and from a sustainability standpoint it’s fantastic. We’re using what would otherwise be empty buses on a return trip.”

Still moving forward

When California issued shelter-in-place orders to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, about 90% of Genentech staff – all but critical roles – began working from home.

“We reduced the service to about 40% of what we normally do,” Andy says. “Throughout shelter-in-place, we ran at times with fairly empty buses, but the idea was to support business-essential people who need to come in every day, and give them a safe ride.”

What happens as things go back to the new normal? Traffic will be light for some time, and the Transportation team is mindful of that. But they are more committed to sustainability than ever.

“During the pandemic, traffic has been reduced significantly, maybe to 20% or even 10% of what it normally is,” Andy says. “There are so many fewer cars and buses on the road in the Bay Area. People are commenting on ‘Hey, the air in the Bay Area is fantastic! We don’t have smog, this is great!”

“So A, you can worry that people won’t see the importance of zero emissions and they’ll return to old habits. Or, B, people see what it can be like when we don’t pollute. And this could be a real rallying point for people to say ‘Hey, we can have this clean air even with a strong economy and everybody going into the office if we can get the majority of people to convert to electric vehicles.’ For me this was an ‘ah-ha’ moment, and I know we’re doing the right thing.”

Genentech’s programme, the first of its kind, will put 21 electric buses on the road in nine California counties by mid-June. The largest can travel up to 400 kilometres on a charge and carry up to 60 people. By 2030, Genentech plans for the entire fleet of some 69 buses to be electric. The company was recognized by GreenBiz among an elite list of"Biotech giant Genentech is a surprising fleet leader: It's got the most aggressive electric commuter bus programs around, in addition to its other EV fleet goals."

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