The importance of planning and partnership are stressed amid a nationwide push to electrify school district bus fleets.
Take San Marcos Unified School District in Southern California, for example, which spans 55 square miles and educates over 19,000 students. Executive Director of Transportation Mike Sawyer shared during a School Transportation News webinar on Thursday that the district is acquiring 34 electric school buses (ESBs) through about $10 million in grant funding.
San Marcos partnered with ENGIE, which first completed assessments of the facilities and determined what would be needed for the district’s unique position, as well as how to cost-effectively charge the ESBs.
“The goal is not just to transition your fleet, but help you pay for it,” said Nancy Rorabaugh, senior program development manager for webinar sponsor ENGIE North America.
Sawyer said he requested ENGIE’s help in coming up with solutions to wildfire risks, which can result in grid closures and require evacuations. Infrastructure is being installed for 75 buses and includes solar, Rorabaugh added, creating backup power sources.
Sawyer shared that there are different types of chargers being installed for cases like buses being needed to cover trips at the last minute.
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“Networking is key,” said Sawyer.
He advised being in coordination with other district departments, utility partners and key vendors to help with not just the transition but understanding the process. An example of something key he had to consider was bus range being affected by heater use.
“It’s too much for one person to know everything,” he noted.
He recommended talking to other districts and attending state and national conferences to crowdsource information from others with electrification experience.
It’s also crucial to get buy-in from transportation staff. When purchasing his ESBs, Sawyer said he was glad to see IC Bus had electric options as those are the buses his drivers like to operate and his mechanics like to work on. He added that processes will need to change, such as pre-trip inspections, and extra training will need to be completed.
“We’re at the forefront of this and it’s exciting. But it’s going to have some learning curves to it,” he said.
He added that school board members, especially those who drive Tesla’s, are excited about the vehicles and have already been driven around in an ESB.
He also attested to the positive reaction from drivers. “Your brain isn’t rattling all day, it’s more comfortable,” he quipped.
John Paul Jewell, regional sales manager with ENGIE, reviewed mandates in New York and California that require new school bus purchases to be electric by 2027 and 2035, respectively. He confirmed that other states are developing similar mandates.
In addition, he noted that there is much funding available via sources ranging from local utilities to the federal government. The federal Inflation Reduction Act includes $1 billion for medium- and heavy-duty commercial electric vehicles, charging infrastructure and related workforce training. The newest round of the EPA’s Clean School Bus Program is also accepting rebate applications through Jan. 31, 2024.
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Aging fleets and total cost of ownership perks like lower energy and maintenance costs per mile also give districts reasons to electrify.
Jewell and Rorabaugh reviewed infrastructure assistance options run by utility companies in New York and California.
“There are a lot of incentives and grants to help,” Rorabaugh confirmed.
While tracking what programs a district is eligible for and what tasks must be accomplished to remain compliant, partners like ENGIE are ready to help navigate this confusing maze. “Our recommendation is to find a partner who can help you work through these details,” Jewell said.
Sawyer noted that ENGIE helped provide the data on financial savings that helped win over district administration.
Jewell recommended quickly taking advantage of the current unprecedented national, state and local funding as well as the wealth of knowledge out there from electrification veterans.
Sawyer spoke to the lack of a national charging network and brainstormed ideas like working with theme parks or other field trip destinations to install chargers so electric school buses can complete longer range field trips.
Jewell concurred and reviewed some such endeavors in New York. He advised working on a county level to help alleviate range anxiety concerns.
“The strategy is still evolving,” he said.