INDIANAPOLIS – An in-depth session about how Atlanta Public Schools began the electrification of its bus fleet kicked off the first-ever Green Bus Summit held during STN EXPO Indianapolis.
Atlanta Public Schools (APS) has 405 school buses, 55 of which are propane. When considering the replacement cycle, officials wanted to reduce the average bus age from 12 years to eight. Anthony Ashley, senior director of fleet operations, said that he was given the freedom to research different fuel types and started looking at electric school buses (ESBs) two years ago.
APS was awarded $9.75 million from round one of the Environmental Protection Agency Clean School Bus Program (CSBP) and used it to purchase 25 Lion Electric school buses, the first expected to arrive in November. The funding also covers $20,000 per charger.
The district is staggering its ESB deliveries from Lion and taking possession of five buses each year. This helps ensure the proper infrastructure is in place, so the buses are not sitting around unused and frustrating district administration, Rick Lee, director of U.S. bus sales for Lion added.
Round two of the CSBP funding will be very different, Ashley noted, as the EPA is requiring a lot more information and grant writers will be necessary. The first round was in terms of a rebate, however for the next $400 million available it will be the form of a competitive grant. It also requires EV training for staff. APS is leveraging Lion’s help to get its drivers and mechanics trained to work on the new EVs and Lee confirmed that grant writing services are available as well.
There were several factors in APS’ decision to go with Lion Electric. Ashley said he decided against one OEM because it would have required the district to only use DC chargers, which he wanted to stay away from as frequent use can lead to battery degradation. The district had its routes analyzed by Georgia Institute of Technology, which also studied pollution and traffic movement. A new bus facility is also in the works and had to be considered.
Ashley noted that he did a lot of the legwork and research, much of which can today be done by modern companies that offer data analysis and consulting. He also urged attendees to keep abreast of the constant technology changes in the EV space.
“You have to have driver buy-in. That’s very important,” Ashley said. In addition to getting the vehicles, Lee underscored the importance of making sure support staff like mechanics are comfortable with them.
Driving habits affect what routes can be done by ESBs. APS routes run from 10 to 75 miles, with an average of 45 miles. One of the biggest barriers to EV adoption is concern over range, which is why APS carefully created its routes with worst-case scenarios in mind.
With 215 routes ranging from urban to suburban and stop-and-go to hilly terrain, Ashley said not all routes are conducive to ESBs. He also considers peak charging time when he plugs his buses in, and if regenerative braking is possible when he decides what routes to put the electric buses on. An interesting fact Ashley said he learned is that air conditioning doesn’t use as much battery charge as heat does.
The district has AC chargers from ChargePoint but does use several DC chargers for emergencies. DC is seen as the future of charging but, for the concerns previously noted and because they are currently five times the price of AC chargers, Ashley urged attendees to buy ESBs that are compatible with both AC and DC chargers.
Lee asked about the district’s future plans. Ashley said that the groundwork is being laid to allow ESB projects to expand.
“The bus is the easiest decision you make. The infrastructure is the hardest part,” Ashley said. The wait for transformers and local zoning regulations are just some of the many moving parts he brought up.
“Look at the whole package,” Lee stressed.
“Are you just doing it because there’s money available or are you actually trying to integrate [electric buses] into your fleet?” Ashley queried. “EV is going to require a lot of work and a lot of planning to be successful in your district.”
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Lee urged districts to get engaged with their local cooperative to see how it would support bringing ESBs into the community.
In answering an attendee question, Lee said Lion expects battery life to be 16 years but added the technology is new and still being tested in the real world. “No matter what OEM you talk to, we just don’t know,” he summed up. He confirmed that replacing a battery could be around $30,000.
The battery is the most expensive part of an ESB. One attendee declared that his district administration wouldn’t be pleased to know that the battery would have to be replaced in eight to 10 years after purchase. Lee theorized that batteries may also be funded in the future. Another attendee noted that projects are underway to recycle batteries after their useful lives in a bus is over.
Another attendee shared her affinity for her district’s electric bus even though there was initial hesitation, specifying the ease of maintenance as a huge plus. She shopped for buses with her mechanics, which she credited with their acceptance.
Due to high torque generated by electric motors and greater weight on ESBs, their tires have a shorter life than those on diesel buses, Ashley said. He reviewed advanced products being developed to combat this issue, adding that reduced maintenance overall balances that additional cost.
Ashley encouraged those interested in electric school buses to do copious amounts of research. He said he referred to research published by the World Resources Institute, toured the Proterra battery factory, went to the end users, and collaborated with neighboring Cobb County School District, which is also rapidly electrifying.
“Everybody who has electric in their fleet wants to share their story,” Lee said. “Make sure you link up with someone who has your best interests in terms of partnerships.”