HomeGreen BusDistricts, Contractors Discuss School Bus Electrification Journey at ACT EXPO

Districts, Contractors Discuss School Bus Electrification Journey at ACT EXPO

LAS VEGAS — Representatives from school districts and bus contractors that are leading the EV charge discussed the benefits as well as challenges to adopting electric school buses.

The “Achieving School Bus Fleet Electrification” panel on May 22 was moderated by Brad Beauchamp, the alternative fuels manager from Blue Bird and discussed everything from EV adoption to infrastructure to funding.

For instance, Craig Beaver, the administrator for transportation for Beaverton School District in Oregon located near Portland, said that in his over 25-year career in pupil transportation he has never seen the amount of funding offered today for school buses and will probably never again.

“We need to take advantage of it,” he told attendees.

Beaverton School District currently has a fleet of 310 school buses, 25 of which are electric and 65 that are powered by renewable propane. The remaining buses run on renewable diesel. Beaverton will have an additional 80 EVs by June 2025 that are currently on order after receiving EPA Clean School Bus Program and other grants.

ACT Expo recognized Beaverton with its Leading Public Fleet award on May 20.

Beaver advised partnering with local utilities. Portland General Electric helped Beaverton secure $ 2.5 million for nine EVs.

Beaver said the district also has 28 Level 2 and three Level 3 chargers. Beaverton is currently running Blue Bird and IC electric school buses, with more EVs on order from Lion Electric, RIDE and GreenPower. Beaver said that while going with different OEMs is risky, the district didn’t want to put all its eggs in one basket. Beaverton also has a goal of being transparent, so it publishes its electric data on its website.

Jackie Hayes, the deputy director of transportation for Boston Public Schools in Massachusetts, added she, too, thinks it’s important to help others learn about the EV journey. In 18 to 20 months, BPS should have over 100 EVs, which will be made possible by stacking federal, state and private funds.

Meanwhile, Corey Muirhead, executive vice president of Logan Bus Company in New York City, discussed the experience with repowered electric school buses. He explained that due to the state mandate that all new school buses purchased must be electric starting in 2027, repowers are a good business model for Logan. Muirhead said the company received five repowers for the price of two new electric buses.

Additionally, he said, it’s more cost-effective to buy a new diesel school bus for $125,000, repower it for an additional $180,000 and still be $95,000 cheaper than a brand-new electric bus. The “sweet spot” for a repower for Logan Bus, he added, is a bus that’s coming out of warranty. Muirhead added that repowers are tax credit eligible under section 45W of the Inflation Reduction Act.

One of the largest operators of electric school buses is First Student, which currently operates 350 electric school buses mostly in Quebec. Kevin Matthews, the head of electrification for First Student, said operating in Quebec has given the company a lot of data on how EVs operate in cold weather.

He added that buying an EV is only about 20 percent of the equation. A majority of the focus should be on charging infrastructure, which is why First Student announced its FlexCharge above-ground charging system. The system runs about 20 to 30 percent less costly than traditional in-ground infrastructure.

Matthews said driver training on EVs hasn’t been a barrier. Once the drivers understand regenerative braking, which takes about an hour and half to learn, it’s generally smooth sailing from there. He added that students are better behaved on electric school buses, which can be a benefit for keeping drivers amid the driver shortage.

First Student received the Leading Private Fleet award at ACT Expo.

Beaver and Hayes agreed that reduced noise levels have also been a huge benefit for their districts. Beaver said improved student behavior was first seen on the district’s propane buses. He said Beaverton is currently reviewing the number of referrals on EVs and he expects to see a similar reduction.

Also on the panel was Christina Ficicchia, the manager of smart grid programs for utility Avangrid. She explained the current projects it is working on in New York, focusing on make-ready programs for the light-duty vehicles and pilots for medium and heavy-duty vehicles. Avangrid also hosted a cohort training program, in which 50 school districts—a mix of small, medium and large fleets—participated.

Ficicchia added that fleet electrification is not a one-size-fits-all solution, and different needs will operate under different circumstances. She advised getting in touch with one’s utility early in the process.

Related: CEOs Highlight Need for Infrastructure Advancements to Increase EV Deployments
Related: Oregon School District, First Student Win Fleet Awards at ACT EXPO
Related: Study Shows Increasing Complexity of Adding Electric, Alternative Fuels
Related: Gallery: ACT EXPO 2024

Panelists also discussed future proofing and long-term infrastructure roll outs. Beaver said his district is adding 60 more chargers, with Level 2 chargers the best fit for Beaverton’s needs. Level 2 chargers save money, and the buses charge overnight, which will extend the battery life of the vehicles, he noted. The district’s long-term goal is to install a generator or a microgrid to supply its own power.

Hayes added that Boston Public Schools is also looking long-term and is considering battery storage and microgrids. Muirhead added that Logan Bus is looking to be energy-independent by controlling the power supply via a microgrid.

Matthews advised against bi-directional chargers at this time, noting that any potential revenue of V2G is offset by a current lack of utility revenue-sharing programs and accelerated battery degradation.

Ficicchia advised fleet operators to start testing at least a couple of electric school buses. She said to start with identifying what fleets might need at first before future-proofing to what the district will be doing at scale.

In conclusion, Matthews expressed caution about the many new entrants to the electric school bus market. He advised fleet operators to know who they’re talking to, even if they’re taking advantage of a free service. He said the new entrants might not understand the safety and work that goes into transporting students.

“Pick your partners your carefully,” Hayes added.

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