HomePartner UpdatesBehind the Scenes of the Nation’s Largest Electric School Bus Project

Behind the Scenes of the Nation’s Largest Electric School Bus Project

How a public-private partnership model enabled simple, affordable, scalable school bus electrification.

School Buses: An Ideal Opportunity for Electric Upgrades

Today, a public school student spends an average of 180 hours a year on school buses. Unfortunately, most of these buses rely on diesel, which exposes children to toxic pollutants.

As fossil fuel buses idle at street lights, in neighborhoods, and at schools, they emit those pollutants, contributing to poor air quality that in turn is responsible for asthma, cancer, and heart disease. Children are even more at risk than adults, and the hardest-hit children are those in disadvantaged communities with the highest concentrations of air pollution. Bus drivers are also exposed to these same toxins for hours each day.

But deciding to upgrade to clean, electric buses, build an electric fleet’s infrastructure, and embrace a new technology can be daunting. Electrification is complex, and most school districts don’t have the time or resources required to implement successful electrification projects.

That’s why districts like Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) are signing up with Highland Electric Fleets. Highland, one of the largest, most experienced providers of full-service electrification solutions for school bus fleets in North America, provides financing and comprehensive services that deliver the full benefits of cost-effective AND reliable electric school buses at a cost that’s the same as – or less than – that of a diesel bus.

The EPA’s Clean School Bus Program will provide $5 billion over five years for clean school buses, and many school districts are realizing that there is a better alternative to the status quo.

  • Electric school buses produce zero emissions and deliver an immediate and palpable health benefit to students and their communities.
  • With fewer moving parts, electric bus drive trains require far less maintenance than one powered by fossil fuel.
  • Electric school buses spend around 18 hours each day sitting at their depots, which creates an opportunity to use the buses as batteries on the electric grid to support local network stability and resilience.
  • And electricity is a far less expensive and more predictable fuel source than diesel.

DOWNLOAD flyer summarizing electric school bus benefits. 

Highland is proud to work with a leader like MCPS on the largest electric school bus deployment in the United States, and even prouder to say that delivery of the project is proceeding at FULL SPEED: the first 25 buses in MCPS’ electric fleet are on the ground and ready for service, with 45 installed charging stations at the first depot to support them.

Making Upgrades to Electric Fast, Easy, and Cost-Effective

Our promise to customers like MCPS is a fully charged electric bus every school day. Highland’s suite of products includes a full-service subscription model under which we take care of everything, including: planning and financing the project; building the charging infrastructure and procuring the buses; coordinating with the local utility and managing vehicle-to-grid (V2G) optimization; training the district’s own drivers and mechanics on the new electric buses; managing the charging of the buses; and paying for the maintenance of the buses and the electricity to charge them.

[Credit: Highland Electric Fleets]

Our model not only takes all the hassle and risk out of going electric; it is also uniquely supportive of customers like MCPS. The electric buses are MCPS’ fleet, driven by MCPS drivers and serviced by MCPS mechanics. We purchased the vehicles based on MCPS’ specifications and preferred bus provider.

Presently, the sticker price of an electric school bus is approximately three times that of a traditional diesel bus. A Highland subscription eliminates that upfront cost. We then deliver affordable annual pricing by optimizing project design, ensuring customers have access to all applicable incentives, and recouping some costs through other means.

We recoup part of our costs through operating cost savings from using electric rather than gasoline, propane, or diesel vehicles and sometimes by selling electricity stored in school bus batteries to the power grid during summer months when electricity demand often peaks and school buses stand idle. This financing and services model can make upgrading to electric school buses fast, easy, and budget-neutral.

That’s how our solution works at a high level. Here’s how the deal between Highland and MCPS to bring electric buses to Maryland schoolchildren got done – and how it provides a model for other districts in Maryland and beyond.

Behind the Scenes: Outside Support, Procurement and Phase 1

Maryland State Delegate David Fraser-Hidalgo (Credit: David Fraser-Hidalgo)

It started with Maryland House Bill 1451. State Delegate David Fraser-Hidalgo proposed the bill after noticing that his elementary school-age children were breathing diesel fumes from their school bus’ tailpipe, which was at the same height as their faces.

His zero-emissions school bus bill would have required that all new school buses purchased in Maryland in 2023 and beyond be zero emissions vehicles (ZEV). Given the relatively high cost of electric buses, the House Ways and Means Committee argued that school districts wouldn’t have the money to pay for the mandated zero-emission vehicles and shot down the bill (note: Delegate Fraser-Hidalgo’s latest bills, HB94 and HB696, passed as part of the Climate Solutions Now Act of 2022).

Delegate Fraser-Hidalgo and electric bus supporters in front of the Maryland State House. (Credit: Maryland League of Conservation Voters)

Highland contacted Delegate Fraser-Hidalgo to explain our financing model, which funds all equipment costs, thereby solving the issues the Ways & Means Committee identified. Delegate Fraser-Hidalgo then connected us with Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich. Mr. Elrich convened the municipal leaders who run the waste, policy, and fire departments, as well as those who run the county fleets (including MCPS’ bus fleet), to learn about this new form of public-private partnership that enables fleet electrification in a budget-neutral way.

MCPS had just received a state grant for one new electric school bus (out of a fleet of 1,400 buses) but wasn’t sure how to use it. The district had neither the time nor the resources to run an experiment that would require contracting, construction, charging, and engagement with the local utility, among much else. They were happy to work with a company that could manage that complexity for them and help them electrify a much bigger portion of their fleet.

Highland managed mechanic and driver training on the new electric buses. (Credit: Highland Electric Fleets)

Before deciding to work with Highland, the MCPS procurement department conducted due diligence, running a public Request for Information (RFI) in the spring of 2020 to ensure they understood a range of models and partnership options. After considering a number of potential models, the procurement department decided they were looking for a seamless, fully bundled public-private solution, which was understood to be both easy and budget-neutral.

The procurement department then issued a Request for Proposals (RFP), a totally separate and additional public procurement process that asked for pricing for a full-service model. After careful consideration of all the bids received, Highland was competitively selected to electrify the MCPS fleet and moved forward to execute a binding agreement with MCPS in February 2021 to launch Phase 1, which would deliver 326 electric buses through 2024. Nineteen of those buses would be supported by an $817,000 grant from the Maryland Energy Administration Clean Fuels Incentive Program.

Working with three separate engineering firms and several local contractors, Highland broke ground on the first depot in Bethesda in April 2021 and completed construction there in July 2021 – delivering the nation’s single largest installation of fast chargers (45) in just three months.

Construction at MCPS’ Bethesda depot. (Credit: Robert Heffner, MCPS)

The MCPS Electric School Bus Fleet: Full Speed Ahead

The next phase of the project involves installing 288 additional charger ports at four sites over the next three years: 90 at the Shady Grove depot; 45 at the Randolph Depot; 42 at the Clarksburg Depot; and 111 at the West Farm Depot. Planning and construction is already well underway at these additional depots, with most of the work for this year’s deployment expected to be completed this summer. The remaining 301 buses will be deployed between this fall and 2024.

MCPS’s collaboration with Highland demonstrates that electrifying school bus fleets can be both simple and affordable for districts. The electrification of transportation is accelerating: every school district in the U.S. will upgrade to zero-emission vehicles sooner or later. MCPS stepped up as an early leader and, with Highland’s help, developed a model that works and is easily replicable in other districts in Maryland and states around the U.S.

Electric buses and chargers at the Bethesda depot. (Credit: Highland Electric Fleets)

Highland is available to support and educate its partners and key constituents at the school district as their communities consider adoption of an electric fleet. We help communities understand the health benefits that zero-emission vehicles deliver, total cost of ownership, maintenance cost savings, and the local job opportunities that come from building regional renewable energy infrastructure.

Don’t Reinvent the Wheel: A Model for Success

We’re incredibly proud to work with districts like MCPS to create competitive, transparent models and processes that can help get more kids to school on cleaner, quieter, affordable electric buses. Our response to the RFP can actually benefit other school districts as well – both in Maryland, and other states. The Maryland Public Purchasing Association, a non-profit that aims to establish and maintain increased professionalism in the field of public sector procurement, approved the Highland RFP and subsequent contract for use by other districts. In fact, several districts in the surrounding areas are in the process of evaluating the benefits of the MCPS project with an eye to electrifying their own fleets using this subscription.

Thanks to MCPS’ leadership, there’s no need for other school districts to reinvent the wheel: MCPS’ thorough and transparent process set a standard that others can easily implement.

Learn more at highlandfleets.com.

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