HomeGreen BusCalifornia District Talks Positives, Challenges of Electric School Buses

California District Talks Positives, Challenges of Electric School Buses

School districts that won first-round Clean School Bus Program funds have largely placed their purchase orders with some only now turning their attention to the necessary infrastructure to power the vehicles. A California student transporter said her district already learned a valuable charging lesson and is better prepared to move forward with its electrification efforts after being awarded last fall.

In October, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it is using the first billion dollars over the five-year program to replace over 2,400 school buses for cleaner emissions, which was being distributed to 389 school districts across all 50 states, Washington D.C., and several tribes and U.S. territories. Among those districts is Coalinga-Huron Unified School District, based in Fresno County, California.

Katie Delano, the director of transportation services for the district, said she is “thrilled” to have received the grant. “It is the most amazing award,” she added. “I have received over $12 million in grants in the last few years all for electric buses, chargers, golf carts, gardener vehicles, cars, etc. When I was hired in fall of 2017, I went to a [San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District] meeting having no clue the electric revolution was in full play.”

She said an alumni of CHUSD was at the meeting and commented that it was time for the district to jump into the electric movement. “I was just learning what a director of transportation of schools do,” she recalled, adding that at the time she was getting her commercial driver’s license while also learning routes, bell schedules and driver challenges. “I was overwhelmed, so I started small, with vehicles, golf carts, chargers and buses. I thought we were so far behind but [was] awarded five buses and chargers from the San Joaquin Valley Air Basin in 2020.”

Then, she said she attended the California Association of School Transportation Officials state meeting and realized many of her peers were also unclear about electric buses. “The questions were overwhelming, but I am an advocate of the electric movement,” she said.

CHUSD received 13 school buses from the CSBP, totaling $5.1 million, $260,000 of which is to be used for the EV chargers. Additionally, the district has three electric buses on order from Blue Bird and purchased through California’s Hybrid and Zero-Emission Truck and Bus Voucher Incentive Project. And CHUSD was awarded an additional six electric buses from the district’s local San Joaquin Valley Air Board Carl Moyer Program. Soon, the district will be running 100 percent of its fleet of school buses on electricity, keeping some diesel school buses on hand for longer trips or in case of an emergency.

“We applied because the push for electric in California is real,” she said of the CSBP rebate. “We knew we better take advantage of any and all grants. So, I applied thinking we may receive one or two [buses]. Just thought we would try.”

However, after receiving notice that she was awarded the $5.1 million, she said she was stunned. “We were overwhelmed with joy at the award amount yet honored with the responsibility as the realization to replace aging buses with new cleaner electric buses is a huge gift to our students and district,” she said. “We are beyond thrilled.”

Delano added that her district are also looking to stack local state grants on top of the EPA funds to result in little to no out-of-pocket costs to the district. The Clean School Bus Grant allows grant stacking as long as funds used did not originate from another federal program.

She said the electric infrastructure is still in the planning stage. When the district put charging infrastructure in for the first set of buses it received in 2020, an order was mistakenly placed for Level 2 chargers that were not made for school buses.

“We contacted the company, and there was no response at all,” she said. “We were ignored, so our school district electrician looked at the insides, and bumped up the amperage so we could charge faster and more accurately. We have another grant from [San Joaquin Valley Air Basin] to improve the chargers and the current infrastructure.”

She advised, “So when purchasing chargers pay attention to what you are getting. Our [administrator made the initial purchasing decision] without understanding the true need. It was so new to everyone, knowing the needs is vital to quick/better chargers.”

She added that after that first experience, the district purchased a new set of EV chargers. “We have reached out once again to our local power company to help with the infrastructure and to bring power to our chargers. We are in contact with our school architect as we look to rebuild our Huron bus yard,” she said.

She noted that she does have some worries regarding the E-waste of the batteries as they near the end of their useful lives and how that could affect the community.

“It is a love-hate relationship,” she said of the electric school buses. “When they work, they are amazing, as they literally turn on a dime and are great rides. My team is split over electric buses as our routes are about 75 miles each morning and each afternoon.”

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She noted that the service area is mostly rural, and the issue with the first set of chargers the district purchased sometimes results in the charging stopping altogether, leaving those electric buses unable to perform their afternoon routes. When the buses don’t charge in between runs, her staff will use diesel school buses as a backup.

“We are working on improving this,” she said, adding that Blue Bird has been responsive in repairing their buses when needed.

Delano noted that while CHUSD is saving money on diesel, electricity costs are increasing because the buses charge all day and night in order to complete routes. She added that the district’s finance director is working on calculating how much is being spent in kilowatts per hour.

“We do need clean running diesels for any trips as our location is quite far from our athletic competitors or for any academic field trip,” she concluded. “So, electric will be amazing for routes, but we still need a few diesels to get our students to sporting and academic events. Also, right now when it is time to renew your school bus license. You cannot test on an electric bus, only diesels as you cannot change gears in an electric. For those who 100 percent drive an electric, this is hard. I know we should be proficient with all buses on the lot, [this] just bothers some drivers.”

Editor’s Note: Hear more about Coalinga-Huron Unified School District’s electrification plans in the latest School Transportation Nation podcast episode. Associate Editor Taylor Ekbatani interviews Katie Delano, the director of transportation, as she talks in more detail about the electric school buses. 

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