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Preparing for Electric School Bus Infrastructure

As your district starts to explore electric school buses, you quickly find out some harsh realities: The charging infrastructure is expensive, you need to get started well in advance, and it’s a confusing ecosystem to navigate, especially regarding incentives. But, if you focus on the following 10 points, you’ll be able to apply best practices and be prepared to ask the right questions to support decisions on the project.

  1. The emphasis on pre-planning is essential because electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure can take 18 months to several years from planning to construction and energization. The worst-case scenario is newly delivered electric buses sitting outside with nowhere to charge. Add a significant buffer to your project timeline estimates and start to explore project ideas now.
  2. Finding the right site for the EV charging facility is an important consideration. Your preliminary decision about whether to build a new site or repurpose an existing bus facility is paramount. It can make sense to merge and consolidate multiple sites into one, or it may be more cost effective to have smaller facilities that are located where they allow for a full charge at the beginning of a route. Also, factor in deadhead miles as part of the decision to optimize battery charge, site location and bus equipment choices.
  3. Determine the proposed electric bus route structures in more detail. There is typically predictability with routes, dwell time and operations, as most districts know each bus will run the same distance daily. Route analysis includes a look at outdoor temperatures, topography (elevation changes) and traffic flows. This helps you optimize your choice of battery pack configurations on buses to optimize total cost of ownership (TCO) and operational effectiveness, by selecting the right battery pack on the right route.
  4. From the operational side, it’s now time to estimate how much power you’ll need to bring to each site and what times of day you’ll need it. This will help you analyze utility peak pricing times to minimize energy costs in your charging plan.
    Starting with a look at your current footprint. Ask your team if each proposed site makes operational sense. Look at the upgrade expenses, the potential to electrify it and availability of sufficient utility power. You can explore whether there are efficiencies with a larger or smaller footprint. Start planning charging cycles for your buses, including midday dwell time, to understand the charging rate needed to recharge the buses fast enough for their afternoon routes. Also, make sure to calculate the utility cost profile for the site, based on time of use rates and your charging cycle plan.
  5. After you understand the ideal charging profile for the site, dive deeper into load management — energy storage, solar options and optimizing bus charge schedules for expense reduction. This is a more detailed TCO analysis of the project over the long haul. For example, solar and energy storage can be expensive upfront, but those assets can lead to lower operating costs over time, especially if they minimize energy utility power use at peak pricing times. It might make sense to create a microgrid to manage energy use, which also has advantages for power outage preparedness.
  6. Start to align the EV charger construction schedule and infrastructure energization with the proposed delivery of vehicles so all the pieces ideally come together at the same time.
  7. Given the infrastructure can cost millions of dollars, it makes sense to explore new financial models like switching from CAPEX to OPEX, meaning infrastructure becomes a monthly operating expense rather than a capital outlay. This strategy eliminates the need to raise funds via a bond measure, for example. This typically involves a turnkey solution provider, and the added advantage is there’s no need for the school district to navigate all the incentives, grants and related reporting requirements from federal, state, and local entities, or manage that lengthy construction process. A partner can capture those incentive opportunities and manage them.
  8. If a partner is building it for you, the best practice is to extend the request for proposal operating period to 10 years, instead of five years which is common for bus hardware. A longer operating period allows your infrastructure provider to propose a much lower monthly operating cost and recoup the investment over an extended planning horizon. A five-year agreement leaves too much expense reduction out of reach.
  9. Discuss the service level agreement as part of any partner contracts to ensure uptime and hold your vendor accountable.
  10. Create a robust operational focus on charger uptime. Add preventative maintenance requirements, like regular maintenance scheduling.

There’s certainly a lot more that can be said about the EV charging infrastructure project that’s likely in your near future, but working through these questions will put you in a great position to shine and, hopefully, get the project delivered on time.

Matt Curwood is senior director of bus operations at Voltera, an EV charging infrastructure company developing and operating charging depots for fleets nationwide. He can be reached at mcurwood@volterapower.com, and readers can learn more about best practices at https://www.volterapower.com/news-insights.

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