HomeGreen BusInnovator of the Year Talks School Bus Charging Solutions

Innovator of the Year Talks School Bus Charging Solutions

Student transportation contractor and electrification pioneer First Student shared a new, efficient solution to school bus infrastructure challenges.

To begin the Thursday webinar, Steven Mentzer, senior EV principal consultant for First Consulting by First Student, reviewed how the Clean School Bus program (CSBP) infused the school bus industry with a hefty revenue stream for electric buses, but a key part of the puzzle was missing when districts began their electrification journeys.

“Most of the time and attention went to selecting a bus and a charger,” he said. “It was like we just forgot about infrastructure.”

First Student, North America’s largest school bus contractor, is no stranger to large-scale fleet electrification. In the process of transitioning its fleet of 30,000 diesel-powered school buses to electric by 2035, the company received the 2023 Contractor of the Year Award from the National School Transportation Association and the Green Fleet Award in the Private Fleet Category during the Green Bus Summit at the 2023 STN EXPO in Reno.

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Chief Engineer Alex Cook, who won the inaugural STN Innovator of the Year Award in 2022, explained how First Student was forced to rapidly innovate and pivot as an early adopter of fleet electrification. “An adaptable infrastructure system was what was needed,” he said.

He shared this was why he and his team developed an above-ground, moveable charging system called Flex Charge.

“I like to think of it as a Lego building block system that you can plug and play,” he quipped. He confirmed that the system can be set up on any surface from dirt to blacktop without the need for any subterranean trenching.

A shipping container sent to the customer contains all the necessary components including transformers, switch gear, chargers, distribution panel, and master switch. H-Frames attached to 4,000-pound concrete blocks called Jersey barriers are used to hold everything in place. This solution is generally available for fleets with 10 or more electric buses, but there is also a kit available for fleets with fewer electric buses.

“Having the flexibility inherent to the design, cost [effectiveness] and rapid deployment is key to a successful operation,” he shared.

Cook said the transformer and switch gear will be sized and designed based on the peak load, with the length and type of cabling determined by the requirements of the charging station being deployed.

Flex Charge allows for the quick movement of charging infrastructure if needed, rapid deployment year round, and significant reduction in construction costs due to not needing expensive digging, concrete pouring and more. Cook shared examples of districts that successfully used this non-intrusive system because they didn’t want to or couldn’t dig into the ground. “It’s hugely cost effective,” he summed up. “We really tried to focus on those materials that are readily available and prevalent across a wide range of geography so that we remove any further roadblocks for our customers to be successful in a short time period to deploy infrastructure to charge an electric vehicle, be it a yellow bus, a medium-duty truck, or otherwise.”

Kevin King, also a First Consulting senior EV principal consultant, added that this solution is ideal for white fleet vehicles as well. He reviewed the services First Consulting offers, including fleet assessment, strategic planning and implementation of an electrification plan.

Cook stated that First Student’s maintenance offerings draw on its nationwide network to help troubleshoot and fix issues that may come up for districts that are new to electrification. He added that the solution can be modified for indoor charging usage and comes with fire protection capabilities.

Lastly, the panelists answered numerous questions about the technical and data-driven aspects of how Flex Charge was developed, how it works with districts’ existing technology and how it can be modified to work for their unique needs.

Cook verified the system’s V2G (vehicle to grid) capabilities and reminded attendees to “always keep in the back of your mind resiliency for the future.”

Watch the webinar on-demand.

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