LONG BEACH, Calif. — If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a million times. Invest in your people, plan for future infrastructure needs, and lean on your partners. Those were the three main themes from the “Electrifying School Bus Fleets: Challenges and Triumphs,” panel discussion at the Advanced Clean Transportation EXPO.
Other phrases such as “historic times,” and “unprecedented funding” echoed through the May 10 session as attendees listened in. Moderator Moneeb Durrani, the national sales manager of bus and transit for ABB E-Mobility Inc., commenced the discussion by noting that it is going to take a village to move the electrification journey from diesel to clean transport. Investing in training one’s staff, he said, will make the switch a lot easier.
Richard DiMatteo, the executive vice president of Highland Electric Fleets, explained that high upfront costs and complexity are the main reasons for districts not electrifying their fleets right now. He explained how the company can help school districts electrify, like with the company’s current contract with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland.
Speaking to the higher upfront costs, Sue Gander, the director of the electric school bus initiative at the World Resource Institute, said she hopes for a total cost of ownership parity between electric and diesel buses before the end of the decade. Her goal, which she admitted was bold, is for the entire fleet of school buses on the road to be transitioned to electric by 2030.
While federal funding is available, she noted funding and policy support is also at the state and local level. For instance, New York state was the first state to announce all school buses be electric by 2035. “Electric school buses are operating in every type of community and have been committed to in 36 states,” she said of the expansion.
Greg Hintler, the managing director of the Mobility House, also noted the importance of working together to overcome challenges, noting that the challenges in implementing electric school buses seem to be higher than the triumphs at this time. He explained that for every school bus that is electrified, $150,000 is saved each year in human health costs, which further drives the desire for a green fleet.
Hintler explained that the company is currently operating nine V2G pilot programs across the globe, and has commercial projects with over 800 fleets. One of those is at Stockton Unified School District in California, which is generating half a million dollars in Low Carbon Fuel Standard credits.
A School District Perspective
Located in a disadvantaged community, about 15 miles northeast of Los Angeles, El Monte High School District serves students in a city ranked at one time as the nation’s smog capital. Wael Elatar, the chief business official at the district, said that most of the district’s fleet of school buses that was purchased in the 1980s and 1990s ran on primarily diesel or gasoline.
He noted that the solution starts with being focused on sustainability, and having an energy manager and a department focused on that goal. He also advised having partners who know what they’re doing.
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The district has since come a long way in achieving cleaner air, being awarded a Green Ribbon Schools Award by the U.S. Department of Education. The award honors districts for reaching goals in reducing environmental impact and costs, improving health and wellness of schools and providing effective environmental education.
In addition to other clean energy programs, El Monte received $9.8 million in 2020 from the Clean Mobility in Schools pilot project from the California Air Resources Board to electrify school buses. Elatar explained that 11 buses were purchased with that grant, and an additional grant covered the purchase of another four school buses.
He explained that while the district is still waiting for the EV charging stations, utility SoCal Edison installed infrastructure to the stub-outs for now. A research and data collection component of the grant will be conducted and made available upon project completion next February.
He added that drivers are enjoying the electric vehicles as they are a smoother ride. However, he noted that an issue remains on the range of the vehicle. Elatar explained that transportation administration needs to manage its scheduling to utilize routes and buses better, as the vehicle cannot go on athletic trips that travel far at this time.