I love the school bus world because it is full of heart and makes public education possible, especially for low-income communities. In the harsh year of the pandemic, school districts nationwide pivoted so that their buses transported breakfasts and lunches instead of students because meals were what their communities needed. That flexibility, that adaptive pivot, was lifegiving, amid painful disruption.
Electrification of our nation’s buses is a happier and much longer-term event than the pandemic, but they share in common their disruptiveness. Change is hard. Whom will it benefit?
A past Partner Update article on stnonline.com looked at electric school buses (ESBs) from the perspective of how they could benefit utilities. This article, though, looks at how ESB’s could benefit low-income communities, which population largely comprise school bus ridership. (I won’t address here the benefits of no tailpipe emissions and cleaner air, which have been well described elsewhere). I’ll describe a planning project I’m working on here in Portland, Oregon, with the nonprofits Forth and Hacienda Community Development Corporation, that aims to create an ESB-based resiliency hub in a low-income community.
To our knowledge, this hasn’t been done anywhere yet. Can we succeed? Please stay with me as I geek out a bit with energy terms. They will come in handy as time unfolds!
ESBs will soon number 1,000 on the road in the U.S., with many more in Canada, plus hundreds on order. They’ve become surprisingly sexy, with investment dollars streaming to their manufacturing like kids streaming to class to beat the late bell. They cost three times more than their diesel equivalents (ouch) with no federal funding available yet. The second-biggest funder of the ESBs on the roads has been utilities (the largest has been Volkswagen mitigation funds, administered independently by each state). We’ll come back to utilities in a minute.
Let’s talk about extreme weather events and power outages. In late June, I was at the Oregon Pupil Transportation Conference in Bend, Oregon. We met in person (I love meeting in person). The trade show was held outdoors in a record-breaking 109 degrees. Of the few hardy souls that attended, I talked with everyone who would listen about this concept of an ESB-based community resiliency hub. People brainstormed it with me, offered feedback, noted the challenges and benefits. Sweat drenched us and ran into our eyes, and we talked on. Then we said goodbye and because we’re privileged went to our air-conditioned hotel rooms to cool our stressed bodies.
Among the less privileged in Oregon, 121 died in the June heatwave, and that was just in my home state. Cooling shelters existed, but not enough, or not close enough to those who needed them. Electric school buses, in the resiliency hub scenario I’m describing, could potentially prevent some of these types of deaths, by discharging their batteries’ energy into a specially designed microgrid that would supply electricity in times of crisis to a local community.
The vision of our planning project team, led by Sabrina Cerquera of Forth and funded by the Portland Clean Energy Fund, is to use vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology and especially vehicle-to-building (V2B) technology to create an ESB-based resiliency hub in a low-income community. We’re including battery storage and solar panels to make the hub more robust.
The project will only happen in a community that wants it. Our current work is outreach conversations with communities, Portland school districts, potential sites (maybe or maybe not district-owned), and manufacturers of ESBs. We’ll need one committed partner from each of those categories in order to then apply at year’s end for funding for the capital project itself.
Our site will determine which utility we’ll work with. Since our funding is Portland-specific, our utility will be either Portland General Electric (PGE) or Pacific Power. PGE has a funding program for ESB’s, with several already deployed. Pacific Power contributed funding for an ESB that will soon arrive at Bend-La Pine School District (hopefully it won’t be greeted by 109 degrees).
Three major manufacturers of ESBs have some experience with V2G technology: Blue Bird in Pekin, Illinois, Lion Electric in White Plains, New York, and Thomas Built Buses in Beverly, Massachusetts. Each of these companies expressed interest in my opening conversations with them at the conference about this outside-the-box project. Even as the sweat from triple-degree heat ran into our eyes.
Let’s come back to utilities, which are the fuel suppliers for electric buses. School buses, when electric, can be more than transportation, especially during the 185 days per year they don’t carry students. We’re not accustomed to thinking of power outages and school buses as having anything to do with each other. But electric school buses mean they can have plenty to do with each other. Utilities are aware of this, and it’s the reason they are the second biggest funder of the ESBs in the U.S. The added electricity use is not their motivator. Bus charging infrastructure does motivate them because capital assets generate revenue for utilities. More powerfully (ha!) utilities need energy reserves to prevent outages.
Power outages are inconvenient for everyone, but for low-income communities, they can be brutal and devastating. Food rots in freezers and refrigerators, with no money to replace that food. Fans go dead, leaving the vulnerable at greater risk of heatstroke and death. Cell phones go dead, leaving no way to get news or even get to work on time, if workplaces remain open. Many workplaces close, meaning lost wages that compound the above losses. How can an ESB help? The 150 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of an ESB battery pack can charge 13,500 cell phones, or heat or cool a compact community building for a period of time so people could gain shelter. Battery storage and solar panels will increase that capacity.
Scaling ESBs from current small pilots up is the goal, including of the World Resource Institute’s visionary, nationwide ESB acceleration project. The power from a large fleet of ESBs could, with V2G and smart energy management, prevent a mid-size town from having a power outage. Excellent We’re a long way, though, from entire fleets of ESBs. And some power outages are inevitable regardless, especially here in the wildfire-ridden West, where utilities are increasingly doing temporary shut-offs of electricity, called Public Safety Power Shutoffs, to prevent the risk of sparks that could trigger new wildfires.
I don’t argue with public safety power shutoffs. Increasingly extreme weather means we must prepare for outages, in general. I do argue that low-income communities, who’ve historically breathed the worst air while having the least access to health care, should be the first to benefit from electric school buses. They should also be the first to benefit from the V2G and V2B technologies that are accompanying electric school buses. Reaping those benefits will take local organizing and collaboration, similar to how Chispa has helped drive ESB adoption in multiple states via organizing skills.
The school bus world has a stellar record of providing access to public education. It pivoted in the pandemic to provide access to life-giving food. The advent of electric school buses means that buses will be providing more than transportation. ESBs will provide access to lifegiving electricity in times of need and crisis. Some of that electricity should land specifically with the communities and populations that school buses were designed to serve in the first place. My project team is hoping to forge a path here that others may follow.
Alison Wiley is the founder of the Electric Bus Newsletter, and of the Electric Bus Learning Project, which is based in Oregon. Jon Jantz of Collaborative Efficiency and Joe Wachunas of Forth contributed to this article.