The modern availability of products, services, and training, makes it entirely possible to successfully and cost-effectively integrate electric school buses into a district fleet.
An STN EXPO Reno session on Monday covered the topic of how electric school buses are evolving, and what to expect about the predicted range, charging, operation and maintenance. Blue Bird was represented on the panel by its director of alternative fuels, Kuba Szczypiorski.
The topic was also covered in depth in a comprehensive webinar hosted by Blue Bird, Cummins and A-Z Bus Sales. Officials from three school districts were also represented and shared their experiences.
Regional Sales Manager Pam Caro explained that Blue Bird has produced over 20,000 alternative fuel school buses, which are in use at over 900 districts. A-Z Bus is a certified Blue Bird dealer for California and Hawaii, and assists districts with everything from grant applications to bus procurement and after-delivery support.
Cummins has been working on electrification for 10 years, and is in it “for the long haul,” explained Kevin Cook, the company’s business development manager of electrification. The 100-year-old drivetrain provider launched its newest electrification business unit in 2017 and boasts a worldwide support network.
Brandon Bluhm, director of sales for A-Z Bus, explained that there are five points that are key to a successful electric bus implementation project: Performance, support, safety, infrastructure and affordability.
As for performance, Blue Bird’s all-electric Vision (Type C) and All-American RE (Type D) are proving their worth in real-world situations. For example, Bellflower Unified School District in Southern California started two Blue Bird All American REs (Type D) on field trip routes before putting them into regular use. Transportation Manager Mark Toti and Lead Mechanic Rick Sanchez stated that they haven’t experienced any letdown in power, compared to a CNG or diesel bus.
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Mike Young, director of transportation and driver instructor for Gateway (Calif.) Unified School District, puts his electric buses through their paces. He said there is no slowing on hills, although the mileage will vary, depending on how the bus is driven, and whether heating or air conditioning is used.
“I have been hogging this bus because I love it,” he quipped. “It has all the power you need, and definitely can go a long way, especially if you have a mid-day charge available to you.”
Regenerative braking is one way to return power to the bus while driving, making longer routes possible. Bluhm pointed out that driver training goes a long way toward making full use of this feature, which also has been tested to be significantly beneficial in hilly terrain.
The second key point, support, is widely available from all three companies. Cummins has over 250 sales and service locations and over 3,000 technicians across North America. Over at Blue Bird, the company provides technician training through its Blue Bird Academy.
In addition, technician certification programs are coming soon from both companies. Sanchez, who had recently attended Blue Bird training, said that it “is something you want your technicians to go to.” New and experienced technicians learn from both the trainers and each other.
“Know the dealers you’re working with,” Bluhm advised. “Wherever these buses are deployed, there’s someone there who can work on them.” Toti said the help that Blue Bird and A-Z Bus provided Bellflower USD for its CNG buses gave him the confidence that support would be there for their electric operations.
With Gateway USD being one of the first districts in the area to acquire an electric bus, Young said that Cummins and Blue Bird were helpful in not just getting them set up, but checking back to make sure things were going smoothly.
Safety is a priority for Blue Bird and Cummins in the manufacture of electric buses and their drivetrains. Caro explained that all Blue Bird buses meet federal safety standards, while the Colorado Rack Test and the Kentucky Pole Test prove the bus is sturdy enough to hold up, in the case of rollovers or impacts with sharp objects.
Hinton Harrison, Blue Bird’s engineering supervisor, recounted the numerous tests that the batteries go through, in order to be federally certified. The batteries are also mounted in the safest location of the bus. Bluhm recapped the safety equipment that A-Z Bus recommends technicians use while they service the bus.
When it comes to infrastructure, Bluhm advised finding partners like contractors or consultants, to better understand the cost. Errol Glenn, director of grants and funding development for Fontana (Calif.) USD, advised districts to consider where they construct school bus charging stations, how they will acquire the power, and what their plans are for the future.
Bellflower USD was able to have its utility provider, Southern California Edison, involved in the process, and was able to set-up its charging infrastructure for a lower cost. “Working with Edison was extremely important,” Toti stressed.
To make electric school buses affordable, Bluhm advised arranging for the local utility company to become involved, or obtaining Low Carbon Fuel Standard Credits, which are awarded for operating low-emissions buses, then selling them.
Additionally, maintenance and fuel savings add up and yield benefits to the bus operation. Some California districts report fuel cost savings of up to 80 percent. Charging during off-peak hours also helps mitigate costs.
Some webinar participants wondered about how electric buses perform in the cold. Harrison said that when North Dakota’s first electric bus was acquired by West Fargo Public Schools, Blue Bird provided important tips, such as keeping the bus charging in a heated garage and storing it there overnight, so less battery power is needed for heating.