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Should I Buy an Electric School Bus?

Last month, images and news headlines of Teslas being stranded in Chicago and not charging in extremely cold weather caught many people’s attention on the merit of owning or buying an electric car. The lack of working charging stations and dead batteries were reported as the root cause. Will this negative news shake consumer confidence in electric vehicles? It depends on where you live. Also, access to a large amount of working charging stations seems to be paramount.

How important is infrastructure? Many industry professionals believe this is the key factor in the whole process of adding electric school buses to a fleet. Electric school buses are going through an initial growth spurt due to the influx of funding from federal, state and local programs plus mounting environmental regulations. The market for electric school buses has been predominately in New York and California, but that scope is expanding rapidly. In mid-January, the EPA announced the winners of nearly $965 million in competitive grant funding for larger-scale adoptions of zero and low-emissions school buses. This amounts to 2,675 more electric school buses across 36 states.

Additionally, the EPA made the decision to extend the application period for the Clean School Bus Program rebates to Feb. 14. The cited reason is stakeholders have said they need more time “to appropriately engage with partners like utilities and school boards ahead of submitting an application.” The rebate will offer at least $500 million for the purchase of CNG, electric and propane school buses as well as necessary fueling infrastructure.EPA said it expects to notify rebate winners in April.

Last month, I also attended the National School Transportation Association (NSTA) Midwinter Meeting in Florida. I had the opportunity to sit in on a panel discussion hosted by NSTA Executive Director Curt Macysyn called, “What’s the latest in the EV movement?” The panel of companies represented included Blue Bird, BYD/RIDE, IC Bus, Lion Electric, Thomas Built Buses and Zenobe, a battery solutions manufacturer and financier. My big takeaway was working with your local public utility is critical to the speed in which an operation can add and scale electric school buses. The panel also discussed the long-term pricing outlook and agreed across the board that electric school bus prices will remain at the current levels for some time.

Jason Yan from BYD/RIDE shared his insights from the company’s work in the transit bus industry, for which it is one of the world’s largest manufacturers. He said he has seen improvements in battery chemistry and energy density with consistent year over year performance and range enhancements on buses. I drew the conclusion that school buses will experience a similar outcome with all the R&D from OEMs.

What does this mean for our industry when extreme weather strikes again? Should this be a major factor in your decision-making process before adding electric school buses to your fleet?

Consider that electric school buses have much bigger battery packs than cars, but can they withstand the harsh winter temperatures? In speaking with numerous school bus OEM sources, I confirmed that electric school buses kept rolling regardless of last month’s arctic blast, but a loss of cabin heat was reported in some instances. Many of the electric school buses on the road might also have fuel fired heaters installed, which add auxiliary heat in more extreme climates. But this negates the zero emissions goal. The choice to operate seamlessly looks to take precedence over going green in some cases.

After the session, I spoke with NSTA president Dan Kobussen, the owner of Kobussen Buses in Wisconsin. He mentioned utilizing an almost 100-percent propane fleet of school buses. His comment to me was that he enjoyed warm buses, which make sense in a harsh cold climate like Wisconsin.

If you are considering making the transition to electric or another alternative fuel, be sure to engage all the stakeholders like OEMs, school bus dealers, public utilities and infrastructure partners early to be sure everyone is aligned. Also, be sure to attend STN EXPO & Green Bus Summit this summer to connect with peers and supplier partners as you consider all options for going green. It is vital that you utilize all the resources available to your district or company as we move into this new paradigm for school transportation. Let’s keep driving forward together.

Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the February 2024 issue of School Transportation News.


Related: Electric Vehicle Onboarding: The Keys to Success for Fleets
Related: (Free White Paper) Thinking About Electric School Buses?
Related: (STN Podcast E193) Change Everywhere: Electric Funding & Critique, IC Bus Supports ESB Adoption
Related: TSD Panelists Discuss Implications of Electric School Bus on Special Needs Service

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