Blake Vargas, superintendent of Caney Valley School District in Kansas, said the process of fleet electrification can be simplified by utilizing data from proper project planning.
Vargas was joined on a May 18 webinar by School Transportation News President Tony Corpin and Paola Massoli, project manager at Microgrid Labs, a company that supports K-12 school district fleet electrification efforts with its system-level planning software platform EVOPT, that quantifies the specific infrastructure needs based on data from the district.
When asked what the district’s motivation was to transition to electric buses, Vargas spoke about the cost-savings.
“Budgets are tight around here as they are in many school districts … The main thing for us, to be honest, was that when you have a grant that is willing to cover the costs of buses and infrastructure, that’s a huge saving point,” he explained.
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Caney Valley School District applied for the U.S Environmental Protection Agency Clean School Bus Program rebate last year and was awarded $790,000 to purchase two electric school buses. The district was one of six in Kansas to be selected.
“Be educated, do your research, elevate your application and learn about the process,” Vargas advised webinar attendees, adding that he drove six hours to visit the closest district with an electric bus as well as researched online articles and spoke with people who have already successfully implemented EV technology.
He continued that the MGL process of starting with asking questions about feasibility helped him get a bigger picture view of the infrastructure needed for the two electric buses on the way and the future plans to electrify more of the fleet.
“We started this analysis, and we knew we could have designed a project just for the two buses,” he said. “It allowed us to start with the two buses as a start to add more. We were able to create that scenario where we can [fully] transition when we were able to.”
Creating the Right Partnerships Crucial to Success
Vargas explained that engaging local utility companies early on gave him important information on the amount of electricity that would be needed.
“We wanted to take the time to make sure that we got all the data that was available,” he said.
Massoli spoke on the main data points that MGL uses to start building a customized infrastructure and charging plan, including mobility, utilities, facilities, vehicle specifications, charger size, and energy infrastructure sizing.
“What we did for Blake is start with a short-term electrification project with two incoming buses, but we also look at what a full fleet electrification will look like,” said Massoli.
She added that the software can provide solutions for fleets with very different route lengths, weather conditions and terrains. MGL also provides a resilience analysis that can determine potential weak spots in the system in the event of a power loss or natural disasters.
Vargas also spoke about choosing the right type of charger. “There were so many different options out there, and that was overwhelming,” he explained. “The key piece you’re trying to figure is the most cost-effective way to charge the buses.”
Vargas said his district utilized a larger 30-kilowatt DC fast charger to accommodate the six-hour window of charging time that his district will have between routes. He added that the analysis from MGL was key to deciding between managed and unmanaged charging.
Vargas also spoke on the importance of making sure that all the transportation staff is kept in the loop through communication and hands-on experience.
“We want transportation staff, emergency management and drivers to all be comfortable with electric buses,” he said. “It was very beneficial to open up the hood and not see a massive engine with thousands of parts that don’t exist in electric vehicles. Less parts on a bus means that there are less parts that have to be maintained and kept up along the way.
“Go ride or drive in an electric bus. It’s a unique and different drive,” he continued. “There are systems that are built in, such as instant torque which allows for smoother braking.”
He also encouraged districts to take opportunities to keep transportation staff and the community informed.“It was important to honor the community and that they were well informed throughout the process,” he said.
Meanwhile, Vargas stated that cost-savings and lower emissions made electrification a beneficial and worthwhile project.
“It’s the dollars and the cents. Being able to keep it in the classrooms, use it for the kids, that’s a win-win for me,” he said. “We anticipate our buses arriving in a couple months and we’re excited to track the mileage and results. We wouldn’t have been able to attain those results without the partnership with MGL. It helped put us at ease and we’re looking forward to seeing what [the buses] look like when they’re in operation.”
Vargas said that engaging an electric partner helps not only increase the amount of buses being transitioned but is also the best way to go about an electrification process.
He continued that that an actionable plan and system level approach clarified what the timeline will look like and how much time and equipment will be needed for installation, if the district is planning on going fully electric in the next few years.
“It’s better to go in eyes wide open before you make the commitment,” Corpin concluded. “Be armed with information so you can take the next appropriate steps. There’s a lot of pressure. We want to provide information that can alleviate the stress.”
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