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Transportation Directors Consider Path Toward 100-Percent Electric Fleets

Fifty school leaders gathered at the nation’s capital to educate themselves on the steps toward achieving a 100-percent electric fleet of school buses.

The first-ever Clean Energy Schools Symposium convened school decision-makers from 16 states who are transitioning their schools to clean energy. Generation180, a non-profit with the goal of inspiring and equipping people to take action on clean energy, hosted the March 26-28 event in Washington, D.C., along with the Center for Transportation Environment (CTE), which facilitated and provided the content for the March 28 discussion. The entire day, sponsored by the World Resources Institute, was dedicated to Electrifying School Transportation, which CTE Development Director Lauren Justice said was designed to be a workshop.

“Electric vehicles are becoming a bigger part of our world,” Justice said, adding that CTE primarily works with electric transit and electric school bus operations “There’s a lot of federal funding being made available to all types of electric vehicles.”

She explained that CTE is helping districts spend time upfront developing a plan, with the goal being the transition to all-electric. “We have moved beyond just buying two buses or five buses and trying them out in most spaces,” she said, adding that some pilot programs are ongoing. “But we’re seeing as you do your first two bus pilots, at the same time let’s go ahead and do a full fleet transition plan, so that you can see what capital projects, and what bus purchases you’re going to need to make over the next 10 or 15 years to make the most efficient use of your resources.”

She said CTE helps districts run the numbers on the most efficient way to achieve a zero-emissions fleet, in terms of investing in chargers and building out the utility power that’s going to be needed.

“We spent the whole day really focused on that. There’s a lot of electric school bus workshops and learning groups out there that really try to educate school districts on the technology [such as] what buses are available [and] how do the chargers work,” she continued. “We tried to move a little bit beyond that and really just focused on why do you want to do a full fleet transition plan and how do you even start thinking about it. And it’s actually a little bit more complex than people realize. We had these 50 school districts in the room and we just kind of walked them through best practices for looking at their particular fleet, and how do they start to put this plan together.”

The full-day electric school bus workshop was broken into four sessions, the first being a panel discussion with Gregory Salois, director of transportation at Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. Joining him were Adam Birdsong, electrification program manager at utility Dominion Energy, Gilbert Blue Feather Rosas, the director of sustainability and adaptation at Modesto City Schools in California, and Kevin Matthews, head of electrification at contractor First Student.

Rosas told School Transportation News that the panel was diverse in terms of both large- and medium-sized fleet electric school bus deployments as well as advice from the utility company. He noted that it was good to network with people who care about sustainable energy.

Rosas added that for the most part, directors share common concerns about going electric, “so why not share the positives as well,” he said, adding that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. This event gave district leaders a chance to talk about the common pitfalls, high points and things that can be done differently, he said.

The second session consisted of CTE presenting the major challenges to ESB implementation and solutions to overcome those challenges, such as range limitations, increased vehicle purchasing costs and infrastructure planning.

Attendees were divided into small groups to discuss the outcomes of their individual transition plans at the Clean Energy Schools Symposium on March 28, 2023. From left to right: Jamee Alston, management analyst for Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland, Niki Rinaldi El-Abd, managing consultant for the Center for Transportation and the Environment and Hilda Maldonado, superintendent of Santa Barbara Unified School District in California. (Photo courtesy of CTE.)

“I think everyone in the room agreed that the utility part is going to be the hardest and that means just making sure enough power is available at your site,” Justice said. “…The utilities right now, as more EVs are coming online, they are struggling with building out enough capacity fast enough. I mean, it’s so cliche, at least in my world, I hear this every day: Get with your utility early and often, to let them know that you’re planning this project. Because otherwise, you’re not going to have the power to do it. So that’s the biggest challenge that everybody kind of agreed on.”

She cautioned directors who want to force the technology to work on their hardest route, “because if it doesn’t do my hardest route, then it’s not going to work for me,” she explained. “But what we try to tell them is this transition is going to take 10 to 20 years and the technology is going to get better. It’s okay to start with your easier routes today. And as the technology evolves, we can build up your fleet as we go. And that’s the whole point of starting with the plan.”

Meanwhile, she added that one thing that set the event up as a workshop is the nonprofit asked districts to submit their fleet characteristics via a form and to create plans for districts to follow in order to achieve a 100-percent electric fleet. She noted that nine districts submitted data.

During the second half of the day, she said CTE presented the plans back to the school districts and asked follow-up questions. “Does this surprise you? Do you really think you want to turn your fleet over this quickly? Do these price tags scare you?” she said, adding that it was essentially a hands-on evaluation of what it would look like to transition one’s entire fleet.

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She added something unique about the attendees was many of them are already involved in solar power projects at their school districts. Justice noted that CTE would like to hold the workshop a few times a year. She really encouraged directors to look at 10 years down the line when they’re buying chargers for example.

“I think we really instilled upon them to go back and look at your entire fleet, all of your vehicles and really think about how much energy [you need],” she explained.

Justice added that CTE has helped develop more than 40 transition plans for transit agencies, and a handful for municipalities, as well as about five for school districts.

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