Plant rolls out electric bus

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood toured the Proterra bus-manufacturing plant in the Upstate earlier this year.

GREENVILLE -- An electric bus manufacturer that was one of more than a dozen companies caught in an international pyramid scheme says it has found new investors and has sent its first vehicle off for the final leg of testing that could open up federal subsidies for local governments to buy the buses.

The Greenville News reported that Proterra LLC sent its first bus to the Altoona Bus Research and Testing Center at Penn State University on Thursday.

Earlier in the week, the company said it had found a new $30 million investment that would allow it to separate itself from an earlier investor who pleaded guilty in March to fraud and conspiracy charges.

Proterra and the other small companies in which Francisco Illarramendi, 42, of Canaan, Conn., invested had nothing to do with the fraud, but their finances have been jeopardized as a federal receiver attempts to recover money for those who trusted

Illarramendi with their investments, including a Venezuelan oilfield workers' pension fund.

Illarramendi faces up to 70 years in prison after pleading guilty on March 7 to criminal charges including several counts of fraud and conspiracy to obstruct justice. Prosecutors say he transferred money among investment accounts without telling clients and falsified documents to deceive investors, creditors and the SEC.

Another firm, NuScale Power Inc. of Corvallis, Ore., that is developing a design for small nuclear reactors, has been forced to reduce its workforce as it seeks new financial backers.

Proterra officials said its new investment has to be OK'd by the federal receiver in the Illarramendi case. But he said the influx of money will allow the company to pay suppliers and get production going again. It also means the company's plans to build a permanent facility at Clemson University's International Center for Automotive Research campus is still on track.

For now, the company, founded in 2004 to make hybrid- and battery-powered buses for mass transit, is building its EcoRide BE35 buses in a temporary facility provided by the city of Greenville.

Proterra also has received federal grants and expects to get state incentives as it begins hiring some of the estimated 1,300 workers it says it will need for full production.

In January, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood cited Proterra as a shining example of the innovative businesses pushed by the Obama administration.

"This can be a model for the rest of the country," LaHood told workers in January.