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California School District Converts Half of Fleet to Electric Buses

Modesto City Schools located east of San Franciso recently completed what vendor Blue Bird is calling the largest single purchase of electric school buses to date, with 30 buses putting the district well on the way to electrifying its entire 62-bus fleet.

Gilbert Blue Feather Rosas, Modesto’s new director of sustainability and adaptation, said the purchase is central to the mission of environmental justice and social justice, as it will eliminate toxic diesel emissions for student riders and the surrounding community, home to people of color and lower-income residents.

Blue Bird will present an award to the district on April 19, with the school community, elected officials and community leaders expected to attend. Rosas said he hopes the purchase will inspire other districts, especially those in environmental justice areas, to electrify their fleets.

“We think electric buses are a symbol of hope and means of change for disadvantaged communities,” said Rosas, a member of World Resources Institute’s Electric School Bus Advisory Council and a speaker at the 2021 STN EXPO Reno.

Before joining Modesto in March, Rosas was influential in adding 11 electric buses and 14 chargers at Stockton Unified School District, where he was the energy education specialist and manager.

In Stockton, Rosas raised $8.4 million through grants and utility rebates, including $4.3 million from California Climate Investment’s Clean Mobility in Schools Pilot Program.

Meanwhile, the Modesto City buses were purchased for about $14 million with the help of California’s Hybrid and Zero-Emission Truck and Bus Voucher Incentive Project (HVIP). The Modesto school board was highly supportive and voted unanimously to move forward, Rosas said, paying most of the buses’ costs upfront.

“We’ve kind of done Stockton on steroids. Instead of fighting to get grants to get 11 buses, we have a district paying almost $14 million and investing in our emissions [reduction]and students and the community, too,” Rosas said, noting that with a total enrollment of 30,000 students the district is the 25th largest in the state. “We’re helping the community as well. We’ll be a beacon leading the way for school districts to do this for their communities.”

Rosas said he plans to electrify the entire Modesto fleet before long.

“We know a lot of Biden [administration] money is coming down the pipe. We want to be in line ready to go,” he said. “With pilot programs, [districts often] dip their toe in the water and don’t go all in. We decided we wanted to complete our fleet as quickly as we can.”

Stockton’s 11 buses were on the ground within less than a year of the deal being signed, a rapid-fire pace. Rosas said he hopes and expects the Modesto rollout will be even swifter, with buses slated to be commissioned and delivered by December 2022.

Ground will be broken in June for charging infrastructure, with construction expected to finish over summer break. Modesto will start with two level 3 DC fast-chargers, and 30 level 2 AC chargers.

“That’s the most bang for our buck we could do right away,” Rosas said.

In a statement, Blue Bird said school district customers report fuel costs of up to 49 cents per mile for their diesel buses, compared to an average of 14 cents per mile in energy costs for electric buses. Rosas said Modesto expects to save $250,000 per year by eliminating fueling half the fleet. And as diesel fuel has gotten more expensive since the war in Ukraine, the comparative savings for electric buses has only grown.


Related: State Incentive Programs Focus Solely on All-Electric School Buses
Related: New Hampshire Looks to Establish Electric School Bus Pilot Program
Related: School Districts Expand Electric Bus Adoption for a Greener, Safer Future
Related: Proposed California Education Budget Includes 3-Year, $1.5B Electric School Bus Program


The April 19 event will also feature electric riding lawn mowers the district purchased with help from state and county funding. Rosas also acquired electric mowers in Stockton, and he pointed out they are so quiet that they can be used without disturbing classes or nap times for young students.

As part of larger sustainability programs, the district will also create outdoor learning modules powered by solar energy. And solar that contributes to bus charging will help the district receive Low Carbon Fuel Standard credits for the buses.

“Our sustainability projects are designed to address climate change, reduce air pollution, and lead the next generation of students in learning about a sustainable lifestyle with renewable energy, carbon reduction, and clean mobility options,” said Tim Zearley, the associate superintendent of business services for Modesto City Schools.

Added Rosas, “Everything about this project is exciting — converting half your fleet, a district [board] that votes 7-0 to purchase these buses, and the emissions reduction will be incredible.

“Modesto is really excited about all the sustainability and possibilities and the fact we are bringing down barriers by showing school districts they can do a big project, faster than anyone thought we could,” he continued. “It’s the perfect storm of cooperation and synergy to be able to work for our environment and our students.”

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