Before purchasing an electric school bus and installing on-site infrastructure, transportation directors shared that there are many questions to answer. For instance, where will the charging station go? Who will drive the new school bus? And what type of charging speed is best for your district?
Fulton County Public Schools serving the Atlanta area is the first district in Georgia to acquire an electric school bus, Director of Transportation Operations Trey Stow said during the “Choosing Electric Bus Charing Infrastructure,” session at STN EXPO Virtual on Monday. Stow relayed that the new Blue Bird Vision Electric was acquired through a grant program offered by the state and utility provider Southern Company.
Meanwhile, Dave Meeuwsen, transportation director of Zeeland Public Schools in Michigan, oversees the operation of four electric school buses from The Lion Electric Company. Meeuwsen explained that his school district has four charging stations on-site and was able to pay for the infrastructure costs through a grant and funding from its local utility company.
In all, Zeeland and six other Michigan school districts divvied up the 17 electric school buses from Lion Electric and Thomas Built Buses.
Meeuwsen said that besides funding, selecting a location for your electric buses and charging stations remains high on the priority list of things to consider. He and Stow both advised attendees who are looking to implement charging stations to park buses in a location that is the shortest distance from the start of the route to keep costs down.
However, planning for today isn’t enough. Meeuwsen said that the charging location needs to scale for future needs yet still be appropriate for what a district currently operates.
“Allow for future growth,” he advised, adding that his co-presenter Stow has room for four or five more charging stations on site.
Stow shared that he is also looking to the school campuses to see what other options are available for charging locations.
Breaking Down Cost Per Mile
Meeuwsen said from Jan. 7 last year until this week, Zeeland Public Schools electric buses have logged a total of 31,000 miles. Meeuwsen added that while the pandemic limited the number of miles driven because of school closures, the district spent a total of $62,000 for electricity, which he estimated to be around $0.17 cents per mile. He compared that number to diesel, which costs the district between $0.34 and $0.40 cents per mile to operate.
In addition to spending less, he said the electric buses reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 45 metric tons.
Stow said Fulton County has had a similar experience. Already running one of the largest Blue Bird propane bus fleets in the country, the district was interested in trying out electric, as his community has signaled widespread acceptance of alternative energy.
At the start of the planning process, he said, the first quote received for a charging station was $50,000. He advised attendees to not accept the first offer. Through grants and partnerships, he was able to cut the cost down to $4,500.
However, Stow did share that Fulton County has recorded a considerable decrease in the electric equivalent of miles per gallon, which he confessed is concerning.
Meeuwsen said Zeeland Public Schools hasn’t seen a huge drop in mileage when using the electric buses. He shared that his school bus drivers are proactive in reducing range anxiety among staff.
He explained that the longest route in the morning wouldn’t leave the driver with enough battery to also complete the afternoon route without another charge. Meeuwsen said the district’s current routing schedule doesn’t allow adequate time for the bus to charge as long as required between routes.
Instead, he said his drivers switch buses, so that the buses that were on the shorter morning routes, can then be taken on the long routes in the afternoon. This way, he said, all drivers can use the electric school buses for every route and the range anxiety is lessened.
Getting the Most out of the Battery
Meeuwsen said his district went with Clipper Creek Level 2 charges, or AC charging, with tracking software. He explained the system offers a slower charge compared to DC charging.
He said if one of his school bus batteries is completely dead, it would take about eight hours to charge, whereas DC charging would take three to four hours.
He noted that the price between the two charging options is significant, as DC charging is more expensive. However, he added that DC charging does present districts with vehicle-to-grid capabilities that could further benefit school districts and funding opportunities.
He added that the Thomas electric buses in the state are using Proterra fast chargers.
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But Meeuwsen added that DC charging also degrades the battery life faster in the long run. He added that one benefit to his charging experience is that no matter what time of day he charges his electric vehicles, the district is charged the same amount by the utility. He said this is a plus since he doesn’t have to worry about peak demand times.
Shawn DasGupta, transportation director at East Peoria Community High School in Illinois, asked if drivers ever forget to unplug the buses from the chargers before driving off.
Nancy Jensen, a driver instructor at Twin Rivers Unified School District in Sacramento, California, which has one of the largest electric fleet of school buses in the country, shared via the session chat that electric buses come with an interlock mechanism that does not allow the bus to move if it is still plugged in.
“My experience is, ‘Darn,’ when I sit down and realize it is still plugged in,” she shared. “Got to get up and go unplug it.”
Meeuwsen added that Zeeland also has a fail-safe on its school buses, which requires them to be unplugged before the drivers exit. Stow added that because there is a large cord hanging from the bus, his drivers know to unplug it before they start the pre-trip inspection.
This is why, Stow added, that picking the right people to be behind-the-wheel of the electric bus is so important.
Meeuwsen echoed that statement, adding he hand-picked drivers based on their crash history, their driving style, and their willingness to learn something new.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to reflect Trey Stow as the Director of Transportation Operations at Fulton County Public Schools in Georgia.