A webinar looking at electrification efforts at a Maryland district revealed that a comprehensive approach is necessary for school districts with awarded funding for the year-one rebate of the federal Clean School Bus Program (CSBP) so they can embark on the next steps of their electrification journeys.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency received over 2,000 applications and awarded funding to 391 districts, at least one in each state. Jane Culkin, a regional manager for webinar sponsor Highland Electric Fleets, confirmed that the rest of the districts were placed on a waitlist. Due to the demand, the CSBP was doubled to almost $1 billion.
“The real work begins now,” Culkin said of the school districts that are receiving funds. “There are a lot of pieces that must be put together and seamlessly processed, often involving a lot of different stakeholders.”
Project development must be started 12 to 18 months ahead of receiving the electric buses, she said. Districts should adhere to a timeline to make sure they are ready for each step, she cautioned.
Culkin confirmed that there is a groundswell of favor toward ESBs from parents, school board members and communities in general, which has led districts like Austin ISD in Texas and Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia to announce their transition to fully electrified fleets by 2035. It’s about air quality for students, the environment and a district’s bottom line, Schutzman pointed out.
Transportation Depot Manager Jim Beasley gave a review of electrification efforts at Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) in Maryland, which runs about 1,250 buses in all.
The district started with 20 electric school buses and over the next few years, looks to raise that number to 320. He noted the ESBs get one mile or range per one percent of charge. Buses travel around 35 mph on a typical route, and Beasley reported slight variations with temperature changes.
MCPS currently has 45 chargers. Highland assisted with construction considerations in light of the limited space the transportation depots have for EV infrastructure. Laying the groundwork took about 1.5 months and required working closely with the contractor, Beasley shared.
Highland provided training sessions for drivers and mechanics. Beasley reported that allowing a volunteer list of drivers to try the ESBs resulted in the organic growth of interest once more drivers saw the benefits. He added that drivers and students both love the quiet buses, resulting in a more enjoyable ride for everyone.
MCPS is beta testing V2G technology, an element that Highland’s VP of Fleet Operations Ben Schutzman said should be considered early in the process as it affects charger choice. Having the buses but not the infrastructure can lead to ESBs sitting useless in a lot, he cautioned.
Schutzman noted that although the new electric buses are funded through the CSBP, “There are still other pieces of the puzzle to budget for.” This is why preliminary research, partnerships and training are crucial – so the integration is smooth and the daily operations of taking children to and from school remain fundamentally unchanged.
School districts that did not win funding this time can apply for round two of the CSBP, state grants, or utility incentives, he said. Highland offers a pilot program to help districts electrify even if they didn’t win the CSBP lottery.
“We believe that EVs at this point are actually driving savings, not just cost-neutrality,” Schutzman stated.
Culkin said that Highland operates in 30 states plus Canada to offer electrification as a service, making it currently the largest buyer of electric school bus buyer in the U.S. Schutzman added that Highland offers a one-stop shop and adds certain guarantees to help simplify the fleet electrification process for transportation staff. For instance, Highland interacts with the local utility so the district doesn’t have to and ensures the electrification process continues on schedule.
Highland kept MCPS informed on such issues as supply chain hiccups, but the implementation process still ran smoothly, Beasley reported. Schutzman noted that there remains a need for diesel buses, so OEM and dealer relationships are important as well.
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Even in California with its enthusiastic ESB acceptance, Culkin said that the wait time for new orders to arrive can be as long as 24 months. depending on where a district is in the queue, which is why it’s important to stay attuned to the timeline.
Schutzman also noted that going electric can be a challenge for districts, necessitating additional time, hired staff and more. “This is why we exist, to pull all the pieces together and provide that seamless solution,” he said.