INDIANAPOLIS — The industry is at the tipping point of electric school bus adoption, but there is still a lot for everyone to learn and consider.
During a panel discussion at STN EXPO Indianapolis on June 5, various-sized operations discussed their steps for adopting electric school buses. LaToya King, director of transportation for South Bend Community School Corporation in Indiana, explained that the district transports about 8,000 of a total 17,000 students. The transportation department was recently awarded two electric buses from the Volkswagen Mitigation Trust Fund, but they are not on the road yet.
Nick Martini, the transportation coordinator of Osseo Public Schools in Minnesota, shared that he contracts out his operation and the provider operates three electric school buses for the district.
Also on the panel was Brittany Barrett, the senior manager of school district e-mobility and technical assistance for the World Resources Institute (WRI), who provided a national perspective on adoption.
The session was moderated by Ryan Lisek, the program director for Drive Clean Indiana, the state’s Clean Cities organization.
King noted that in her experience, electric school buses are beneficial when all stakeholders are involved. She said that to realize the true benefits to their community and students, everyone in the school system must understand the benefits and how it will impact students.
Martini added that electric school buses are beneficial when the district can explore modern technology at a reduced cost. He noted the large pot of federal and state dollars that are being directed not only toward education but also student transportation operations.
He said another key component to the buses was preparing for criticism that will come up and knowing what to say in return. He advised districts to be a part of the early conversations and ask questions of surrounding districts that already have the technology in place.
For those looking to find the total cost of ownership of operating an electric school bus, Barrett informed the attendees that WRI also offers a total cost of ownership calculator on its website. She said it factors in maintenance, fuel savings and net savings value. She added that the buses have yet to run a full lifecycle, so additional savings could be realized as well.
Martini said his operation runs three Lion Electric Type C buses, which were first on the road in 2021. Despite the harsh Minnesota winters, he shared that transportation staff has not noticed any significant issues with running the electric vehicle in colder temperatures. He said the Lion buses are purpose-built, have wider aisles, and composite bodies, all the reasons the district selected the OEM. Osseo is also running Level 2 chargers.
King added that her district selected Thomas Built Buses with Proterra DC fast chargers.
Future Landscape in America?
Barrett noted that WRI sees a lot of momentum toward electric school buses. King agreed, stating that she envisions an eventual, 100-percent electric school bus fleet nationwide. She noted that the technology is good for the students and the environment, and she is excited to see the change.
Martini, meanwhile, noted that electric school bus deployment depends on the timeframe and funding. He said that he also sees a world that will one day run solely on electricity, but it is going to take time to convert an entire fleet of school buses. He noted that the conversion also falls on utilities, as some companies are saying they will not run any additional power to certain areas.
He said his advice to other school districts is to have long-term plans with utilities. He said having conversations about the size of the fleet and what it might look like to eventually install enough chargers is critical to power planning.
King added that she, too, believes the conversation needs to revolve around infrastructure, as well sustainability after the batteries exhaust their serviceable life in 12 or so years. King added another conversation to have is with mechanics, taking them to the buses and having them look and inspect everything prior to purchasing so they get on board with the adoption.
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Barrett added that districts need to be communicating with all stakeholders from the very beginning. She added that they should also be committed to providing mechanics with high-voltage training. Martini added that when mechanics express anxiety about electric buses putting them out of a job, he reminds them that there are still routine maintenance issues to fix as well as software upgrades to perform.
One attendee asked how King was able to manage electric school bus adoption while also completing her normal daily activities. She advised that it is a challenge, as she also drives routes when the district is short drivers. However, she said that if going electric a priority for transportation leaders and their school districts, then time needs to be set aside.
In closing, Martini said that everyone needs to remember that the journey toward all-electric school buses is unique for every situation, and it is not a one-size fits all decision. He advised the attendees in the room to embrace it and make the process their own. He added that there’s a wealth of knowledge to learn from.
King added that she advises districts to embrace the evolution and not to be afraid. She said to know what your district needs are and how electric school buses will be a benefit to your district. Barrett reminded attendees that they are not alone on this electric journey. There are many organizations that want to see districts succeed, she said.