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Electric School Buses in the Midwest?

As with many things environmental, California and the Northeast are leading the way on electric school bus adoption, thanks to state grants, cap-and-trade funds, electric vehicle incentives and programs that focus on rural schools and urban minority populations most impacted by diesel emissions.

The Midwest is a tougher nut to crack, with less government and private-sector focus on the environment, many school districts in financial crisis and cold winters to boot.

Nonetheless manufacturers and clean energy advocates are hopeful the Midwestern market for electric school buses could ramp up thanks in part to funds available under the Volkswagen settlement as mitigation for its emissions-test-rigging.

States are currently in the process of deciding how they will use the Volkswagen funds. The Ohio, the home of national industry conferences this week, along with Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota are eligible for a total of about $420 million in Volkswagen settlement funds, including more than $60 million specifically for electric vehicle infrastructure and the rest available for vehicle and equipment upgrades.

Stakeholders say Ohio, Illinois and Michigan seem particularly interested in using funds for electric school buses. A public input process in Ohio resulted in high numbers of requests for school bus replacement. An early draft proposal by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality discussed using half the funds for school bus replacement, which could include electric and other bus types.

Just outside the Midwest, Colorado’s proposed plan would put incentives for electric school buses at two to 10 times the amount for compressed natural gas or propane school buses.

Blue Bird, IC Bus, Lion Electric, Thomas Built Buses and Trans Tech are all showing electric school buses at the National Association for Pupil Transportation annual summit in Columbus, Ohio this week. Last summer a Lion electric bus made stops in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Indiana, where school officials, parents, policymakers and utility representatives got on board, literally and figuratively. During National School Bus Safety Week last month, a Blue Bird electric school bus visited the state capitol in Lansing, Michigan.

“We got a lot of positive reaction from people upon seeing, hearing and not having to smell them,” said attorney Susan Mudd, senior policy advocate at the Environmental Law & Policy Center, which co-organized the school bus tours. “As with other vehicles, when California leads the way, the rest of the nation is often slower but catches up. The Volkswagen money in many states could help to get things kick-started.”

Mudd said foundations, original equipment manufacturers and other entities could also help schools fill the gap between the cost of new diesel and new electric buses. “There’s no single way it will play out,” she added.

State legislators and policymakers could help by creating incentives for electric vehicles, benefitting their state’s air quality and also creating jobs since various electric bus chassis and components are made in the Midwest. Already, Ford Motors is making chassis for electric buses, and several other Michigan manufacturers are supplying Lion with batteries and components.

Utilities including ConEd, Consumers Energy, DTE Energy and Duke in the Midwest have also voiced support for electric school buses, which could expand demand for their electricity and potentially help them stabilize the grid through V2G technology. In such vehicle-to-grid arrangements, plugged-in electric vehicles can send energy back to or soak up energy from the grid as needed. Utilities could also buy the bus batteries themselves and essentially lease them back to districts, slashing the upfront cost of electric buses.

Motiv Power Systems, which provides the electric drive for the Trans Tech SSTe, will be rolling out V2G electric bus technology next year, according to director of sales Kash Sethi. He said the company hopes utilities will help fund electric school bus purchases up-front, and he noted that school districts could make extra money by letting utilities tap their buses’ batteries, especially during the summer when school is not in session and air conditioning causes energy demand spikes.

Jim Reynolds is CEO of Adomani, which manufacturers electric motors for Blue Bird buses. He said public sentiment and pressure from parents will eventually make electric school buses the norm nationwide. But that will mean lighting a fire under school officials and regulators.

“In the Midwest, there are some states that are very used to diesel and have been providing funding for diesel buses for a long time,” he said. “It’s been difficult to get them just from diesel to propane, and from propane to electric is still an uphill battle.”

Trey Jenkins, vice president of customer service and alternative fuels for Blue Bird, said “we absolutely believe there is a market” for electric buses in the Midwest, and “we’re putting the business case together for that, hoping to move the needle up in the Midwest.”

Sethi said that while state programs in New York and California have made it “easier for fleets to take the plunge” and into electric buses, “the benefits of electric school buses are not specific to California. We are putting our most precious cargo in those buses—our kids.”

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