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Electric School Bus & Infrastructure Takeaways

Last month, I attended my first conference of 2023, which was hosted by the National School Transportation Association (NSTA) in San Diego, California. It was wonderful seeing school bus contractors, OEMs, suppliers and government officials. At the opening breakfast, Antonio Civitella, president and CEO of Transfinder, encouraged the audience to take away at least one idea from the meeting. I like to walk away more informed so I can share with others. Luckily, editor Ryan Gray was also there so we both could benefit from the experience.

The opening sessions focused on the hot topics of electric school buses and infrastructure. The moderator was Corey Muirhead, executive VP at Logan Bus Company, the largest school bus contractor in New York City and with five electric school buses in its fleet. The panelists were Jim Crowcroft from Thomas Built Buses, Tom Polzin from IC Bus, and Frank Giradot from BYD. The panel of experts discussed the importance of pre-planning to effectively take advantage of the EPA Clean School Bus funding. The audience was reminded to consider sales tax on the purchase of the EV school buses as part of the overall purchase price. They recommended rethinking the overall new school bus funding model, especially amid unexpected price fluctuations due to increasing global demand of raw materials.

The potential of thermal events was a topic that also came up. The panel discussed the importance of battery chemistry as a major correlation to safety. “Certain types of raw materials are more stable than others,” said Giradot. “It’s important you ask that question to your school bus manufacturers.”

Polzin added, “The purpose-built engineering of new electric school buses where the batteries are mounted is made twice as strong than a traditional diesel school bus in case of a crash.”

One negative discussed was that EPA underfunded the infrastructure investment at $20,000 per bus. It’s simply not enough money to address the real costs of hardware, software and battery storage. Another was the need to select charging technology that is compatible with the awarded school bus. And watch out for any hidden costs from construction.

Other ideas shared focused on driver behavior and the use of regenerative braking to address range anxiety. Also, the ability to maximize route performance is a key factor. “Some school drivers we see are making a game out of how far they can maximize the range of the batteries,” said Crowcroft.

The importance of analyzing data from software will help operators make the appropriate tweaks to behind-the-wheel behaviors so they can become habit. Training school bus drivers on electric school buses is essential to realizing the true performance benefits, as this technology drives differently than traditional diesel school buses. If you are considering a pilot project or are running an ESB currently, test under real-world conditions using all the standard equipment—GPS, cameras, HVAC— you would expect to run. Don’t forget weather and topography.

The panel all agreed that there is a lot of excitement from the entire industry surrounding electric school buses, but some districts and contractors are feeling overwhelmed by the change.

NSTA officials said details on the year-two Clean School Bus Program, expected to be a grant competition, will come in April or May. Until then, the consensus among attendees was they hoped EPA learned from round one and other stakeholders on how to improve the program. The school bus contractors had a big win last month with an amendment to access the funds directly, so it appears some changes are already happening.

If you are thinking about making the switch to electric, be sure to consider all the factors, build out predictive models, and engage partners to make sure you are setup for success. Political expedience for electric school bus deployment is pushing our industry, whether we like it or not. Be sure to come to STN EXPO + Green Bus Summit this summer in Indianapolis, June 2-6, or in Reno, July 14-19. Registration opens this month, and you can save $200 if you book early.

Visit stnexpo.com for details. Experts, OEMs, supplier partners and peers will help you learn and make the right decision based on your unique situation. You can’t do this alone. Finding the right partners is key to the successes we all want for our schools, students and communities. I invite you to join us so you can have a lot of takeaways, too.

Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the February 2023 issue of School Transportation News.

Related: EPA Announces Collaboration for ‘Seamless’ Electric School Bus Implementation
Related: (STN Podcast E120) Onsite at STN EXPO Reno: Electric Innovator Pulls Back the Curtain
Related: California District Talks Positives, Challenges of Electric School Buses

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