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Small and Large: Interest Grows in Transitioning to Electric School Buses

“This is a wave that can’t be stopped,” commented Scott Meyer, the Eastern Washington sales manager for Thomas Built Buses dealer Schetky Northwest Bus and Van Sales, referring to the fast-growing phenomenon of public-school districts converting their aging diesel-powered bus fleets to state-of-the-art electric buses. “There is any number of reasons why a district would want to do this, from environmental concerns to noise pollution. Each district has its own varied experiences and perspectives.”

The closure of public schools provided a window of opportunity to replace aging buses, but the rapid growth of electric vehicles pre-dated COVID-19.

“Fossil fuel engines are being phased out across the board, as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires stricter emissions requirements,” Meyer said. “The cost to engineer fossil fuel engines that meet these guidelines is prohibitive, and electric is the technology best suited to replace them. Buses can be replaced on a regular schedule, so the school closures have not had much impact on the overall process.”

Meyer said he believes stringent new EPA requirements on diesel emissions will eventually legislate fossil fuel engines “out of existence.” Therefore, it’s smart to begin upgrading as soon as possible.

“In order to ensure adequate funding, it’s all about what grant money is available,” he continued. “The change-over from diesel to electric will likely be done in stages, due to the costs and the currently limited range of electric vehicles. As more come online, districts will have more options, making it easier to finalize their plans.”

The process of converting a bus fleet involves many participants: the local utility provider, the bus manufacturer, bus dealer, school district facilities staff, and maintenance personnel to plan for the installation and use of bus charging stations. Districts also need to involve local, state and federal funding resources.

“The main considerations for a manufacturer and provider of the new EV buses are cost and geographic range,” Meyer added. “Costs will come down as the volume of sold vehicles increases, and the range will continue to increase as battery technology improves. And of course, it’s competitive. Each district can work with whichever manufacturer and dealer it feels best meets its needs.”

He echoed the advice of various bus manufacturers and energy consultants that the first step in converting to electric is an evaluation of the current infrastructure and determining if a greater amount of energy is needed to be routed to the facility. For example, do the district and utility require vehicle-to-grid technology?

“This involves the local utility provider and bus manufacturer and is driven by the local dealer,” he added. “Securing the needed funding via grants and district funds is then evaluated. Training for both mechanics and drivers is the next step. Then it’s on to transporting kids.”

Eastern Washington state is a unique part of the country, Meyer added, because of its large wind energy infrastructure and heavy renewable energy segments. Schetky is currently working with districts like Highline School District south of Seattle and the districts of Orcas Island and Lopez Island located in Northwest Washington’s Rosario Strait.

Schetky currently has five depots, and Meyer noted that all will eventually obtain electric buses, most of them by year two of the implementation project.

“In the first year, since there is such a short window between contract signing and deployment of the first 25 buses this August, all will go to one depot, the easiest to electrify,” he added. “At this depot, sufficient power to support the 25 buses is available on power lines immediately adjacent to the depot.  The other depots all require the electric company to increase its capacity in some way.”

Large Fleet Electrification Plans

The largest fleets in the nation are getting in on the action. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) ordered 10 all-electric school buses on March 1, as part of its plan to replace all diesel-powered buses. In addition to the electric buses, the Lion Electric Company will also provide support and training to LAUSD from its recently opened Experience Center located in nearby Alhambra, California. The vehicles are expected to be delivered this spring and will join the district’s one current electric school bus.

LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner said a single electric bus will save more than $10,000 annually in maintenance costs and will reduce greenhouse gases by 54,000 pounds each year. A LionC bus claims to travel as far as 155 miles on a single charge, according to the company, and can be equipped with a wheelchair lift. The purchase was funded by California Energy Commission’s School Bus Replacement Program.

Meanwhile, Todd Watkins, transportation director at Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, operates a fleet similar in size to LAUSD. He said he attended several conferences over the past several years that were focused on converting an aging bus fleet to new electric vehicles. At the same time, he sought grant money to cover the huge price tag of replacing nearly 1,500 vehicles.

Then, he learned about a budget-neutral method of acquiring electric buses and sent a Request for Information. In August, he sent a Request for Proposal seeking bids on a lease program, financing for a variety of services, a designer for the charging infrastructure, electricity to run the buses, and reduced maintenance costs as a result.

The responses trickled in, he shared. In December, the district’s evaluation committee pre-awarded Highland Electric, with the goal of formalizing the contract at a Board of Education meeting in February.

For the same annual cost MCPS currently spends on purchasing and maintaining diesel buses, it will lease 326 new Thomas Built Buses Saf-T-Liner C2 Jouley electric buses from Highland Electric over a four-year period. This equates to 25 buses in the first year, 61 in the second year, and 120 during the third and fourth. “We will use full-sized Jouleys for regular education and mid-sized Jouleys for special education,” he said. “If things are going well, we might turn to other vendors as well. Our last purchase will be in the fall of 2022.”

“All our diesel buses are still working, but we’re thrilled that we’re moving to electric in a big way. We don’t want to give up the existing diesels. We have 1,422 in our existing fleet and will operate them over the next 12 years.”

He added that it will take those 12 years to pay for the new buses, and 14 years to complete the entire process, explaining that Montgomery County will still purchase some diesel buses in the next two years.

Watkins, who is also the 2020 STN Transportation Director of the Year, shared that the district’s average school bus route is 100 miles per day. But an average range on a full electric charge is 130 miles using EV fast chargers, according to Thomas Built Buses and partner Proterra. “So, we have that flexibility,” he added. “And so far, we don’t have the knowledge and expertise to implement an electric bus fleet, but we plan to acquire that over time. In effect, we are buying the expertise, bundled with the new buses. In terms of the chargers, we do have expertise in designing the infrastructure.”

As Meyer at Schetky Northwest noted, “The old DC battery chargers will be obsolete. With the new chargers, a bus can go from empty to full — in the old diesel terms — in just a few hours. This is a major benefit for every school district that converts its aging bus fleets.”


Related: Transportation Leaders Discuss Anticipating, Planning for School Bus Electric Charging Needs
Related: House Bill Seeks $650M for Zero-Emissions School Buses
Related: New Federal Legislation Seeks $1B to Fund Electric School Buses


Training is also an essential need for districts converting old diesel-powered fleets to new electric buses. For drivers, electric buses will operate similarly to diesel-powered, except for regenerative braking. The ride is also quieter. And some of the standard gauges on the dashboard will be different. Still, training is necessary.

“For bus technicians,” Watkins said, “most of the bus body will be the same as the Thomas C2 body, and we have a lot of experience with them. But the electric power train will be completely new and different, so we will have intensive courses on maintenance for that. Training for bus drivers and technicians will be provided by American Bus Sales, our local Thomas dealer, and is included in the contract.”

Meyer explained that electric school buses require high-voltage HV-3 training to ensure the bus is in a safe electrical state to perform maintenance. HV-1 and HV-2 training, meanwhile, are the introductory levels of training required for operation and routine maintenance.

“[An] electric bus accelerates very fast, right now. Bus drivers need to re-educate their feet [on the accelerator and brake pedals] in order to produce a smoother ride,” he added. “And the waiting time to accelerate at green lights and street corners will be eliminated. Of course, we will provide full safety training on the HV-1 and HV-2 models as well.”

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