RENO, Nev. — Three school district leaders and a representative of the largest school bus contractor in North America provided perspectives on the transition toward electric school buses during the opening session of the Green Bus Summit on Sunday.
Moderated by Ewan Pritchard, an engineer and subject matter expert for technology and management services firm Energetics, the panel provided attendees an opportunity to ask their questions about fleet electrification as well as the impact on infrastructure and the electric grid.
The panelist with the most experience in the transition to electric school buses is Alex Cook, the chief engineer for FirstGroup, parent company of contractor First Student. Cook explained that First Student has around 50,000 school buses that operate across 42 states and every Canadian province. In addition to electric vehicles, of which First Student is looking to deploy the largest electric school bus deployment of 300, also operates diesel, gasoline, propane and CNG.
Cook explained that the company has experience using various charger types, from 20Kw to 60 Kw, and bi-directional V2G operations. He added that First Student is currently working with 40 different utilities, but that number will increase to 150 later this year.
First student received its first electric school bus about seven and half years ago. Cook explained that, going forward, the things he will change in the process is really understanding and crafting the relationships to make sure every need is met and understood. Utility interaction is everything, he shared.
Meanwhile, Modesto City Schools in California is accepting its deployment of 30 ESBs, with the first 15 electric school buses projected to be in place by the start of the new school year. The remaining half are expected to be delivered later this fall. Tim Zearley, associate superintendent of business services at the district, said Modesto used various state and federal grant funding vehicles to obtain the buses and charging infrastructure. The district broke ground with its infrastructure in June of last year and completed the installation within two months.
He said one thing he would do differently, and what is being implemented in phase 2 of the project, is the addition of more DC fast chargers at their location. The district started with two DC Chargers, with plans for 12 additional ones.
Karim Johnson, the director of student transportation and fleet services for Bethlehem Central School District in New York, has 103 school buses, six of which are electric. He explained that five ESBs were purchased in 2021, through state funding and arrived at the start of the 2022-2023 school year. Bus number six was purchased in 2022 and arrived just a couple weeks ago. The district has another ESB on order, bus number seven is projected to be delivered between December of this year and July of next year. Bus number six and seven were purchased at full price from the district.
Johnson added that the district also has a goal to electrify 50 percent of its fleet a full year before the New York state mandate of all school buses on the road being battery-electric powered by 2035.
He noted that one key component to electric buses that Bethlehem didn’t start with, which he relies on now, is charge management software. Johnson explained that when the buses were first delivered, the charging was cut off when a bus was done charging. That worked until the weather got colder, and the buses needed to be pre-conditioned, so that a majority of the battery wasn’t going toward heating the bus.
Johnson explained that the software helped district officials to ensure the bus was preconditioned prior to the bus route. Charge management also always provides the state of charge and for all the buses.
Meanwhile, Kim Crabtree, director of transportation for Bend La Pines Schools in Oregon, has one electric school bus, which was ordered three years ago and was delivered in late 2022. She shared that the entire process has been a learning experience. A mountainous district with over 14,000 square miles of a service area, Bend La Pines has a total fleet of 130 buses, 52 percent of which run on propane. The rest, she said, are a mix between gasoline and diesel.
Right now, she said, her location has no more power availability, so her biggest step is figuring out what’s next in terms of ESB adoption.
Working with Utilities
Cook said First Student has had an overall pleasant experience working with utilities. At the same time, however, he said the process is evolving. He explained that it’s important to develop relationships with utility partners and work out the entire process with them, including the available equipment.
For example, Cook said that switchgears can take over a year to receive, so speaking with utilities as soon as possible on the other options available is crucial. He added that it’s also important to pay attention to the tariff’s each district is charged on their electric bill and to work with utilities on demand hours and peak and off-peak charging times. He said the national average is 0.8 cents per kw/hr for charging, but he’s seen it upwards to 25 cents, plus additional demand chargers.
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Thus, he said, everyone needs to understand the cost structures.
Zearley agreed, adding that having the utilities at the table from the start and getting their buy-in is extremely important. Johnson added that he engaged with utilities from the beginning, as they are the ones who can tell district leaders if the electrical project will work or not.
Understanding the Grid
One attendee asked how the power grid is going to support a full electrification of vehicle, especially since there is a current issue with rolling blackouts. Pritchard explained that the grid fluctuates throughout the day and even throughout the seasons. He said many are looking toward school buses to support the grid during the high demand times (using vehicle-to-grid), as opposed to hurting the grid. The time that buses are plugged in, matters, he said. He advised that 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. is an ideal time for school bus V2G because demand is low. Conversely, he said school districts should not plug in from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. when demand is high.
Bus Driver Experience
Cook said bus drivers have embraced the vehicles, the quietness and performance, in particular. He said many First Student drivers engage in a competition on who’s the best at energy recovery and putting that power back in the battery.
Crabtree added that her drivers also have a competition on who can regenerate the most power. She shared that her drivers like the vehicle, which Johnson reiterated.
Cook noted that while there is a learning curve to driving the vehicles, First Student has an entire team dedicated to helping drivers navigate it.
Editor’s note — Prior to the start of the panel, Jason Yan, director of sales for title sponsor BYD, made opening statements.