For school district administrations considering investing in electric buses, repowering conventional buses with electric drivetrains can be a desirable option that reduces the cost and allows them to get more mileage out of previous investments. The benefits may be amplified currently given the supply chain shortages that are affecting the manufacture of new buses, plus the economic impacts of the pandemic.
Unique Electric Solutions (UES) converts conventional buses and commercial trucks to electric and works with local authorized dealers to do so. Michael Backman, the company’s vice president of sales and marketing, said repowering a diesel bus with an electric system usually costs one-third to one-half of what it would cost to buy a new electric bus. UES is providing repowers for Logan Bus Company, one of about 60 school bus companies under contract with New York City, where the City Council in October passed an ordinance to require all school buses be powered by electricity by 2035.
“It’s not only one-third to one half the cost, but the results are exactly the same in terms of air pollution reduction, noise pollution reduction, fueling costs reduction, feel for students and drivers,” compared to a new electric bus, Blackman claimed. “If your goal is electrification, it’s just a fact you can’t do it cheaper, faster or easier than repowering your existing buses. If you have budgets for electrification, those dollars will go two to three times further with repower than new buses.”
The charging services company AMPLY Power is working with UES to convert conventional diesel-powered buses to electric and prepare them for vehicle-to-grid (V2G) operation, wherein school districts can reap benefits from their utilities by storing power and sending it back to the grid when buses are plugged in. AMPLY works with several companies that do repowers, noted Simon Lonsdale, the company’s co-founder and head of sales and strategy.
“You’re taking an old diesel bus, lifting off the good part of it, and replacing all the drivetrain with electric,” he explained. “If the bus is still good, it has a new chassis, it meets all safety standards, then this is a great option.”
Backman noted that school bus driver shortages and schedules altered by the pandemic have led to some conventional diesel buses “lying idle” when they could be repowered during the downtime. He added that repower providers are also much better suited to weather the current supply chain challenges.
“It would be disingenuous for anyone in any area not to admit we have those,” he said. “But it’s different for us. Fortunately, it’s much better for us. We’re not building an entirely new bus. We’re building a drive train of a bus. If you speak with the OEMs, you hear the same thing over and over. It’s not just a computer chip shortage, it’s everything. It’s brake and steering parts, it’s seat parts.
“Because our bill of materials is shorter, it allows us to place more effort in having backup plans and alternate suppliers and bringing things in-house. We’re not chasing axles, we’re not chasing windows, we’re not chasing tires. No bus maker we’re aware of builds their own axles, tires, seats. Our focus allows us to be able to build more stuff ourselves and have a more redundant supply chain,” Backman added.
He noted that as demand for electric buses may increase rapidly, especially given the $2.5 billion in incentives under the new federal infrastructure law, repowers may become more accessible than new electric buses.
“Even if you remove the supply chain shortages, [electric bus manufacturers] are going from not shipping much to preparing to ship a lot. In the best of times, everybody would be having growing pains,” he noted, pointing to potentially stretched operations to meet demand. “We definitely sympathize with the growing pains OEMs are having, but we are just not [dealing with this] as much.”
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In addition to incentives available for repowers under the new infrastructure law, the federal Diesel Emissions Reduction Act grants also fund electric repowers of existing buses. The federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement program and the New York Truck Voucher Incentive Program also apply to repowers.
“Money is available when it wasn’t before – grants and incentives are available for repowers, so your dollars go further,” Blackman said.
Often, problems with the transmission or other components of an internal combustion engine bus result in retiring the vehicle while the chassis and other parts are still in fine working condition. Repowering the bus as electric can help the district or bus company get the most out of the lifecycle.
“Most buses are on the road seven years or less, but with minimal refurbishment they are built to last 25 years,” said Mike Menyhart, president and chief strategy officer of SEA Electric in the Americas. The Australian company provides electric repowers, and puts electric power systems in new OEM chassis for Type A and Type C buses, as well as a wide range of commercial trucks.
“The repower solution is highly effective,” he continued. “At the current trajectory, it would take us 100 years to electrify all the school buses in the U.S. We think there’s tremendous opportunity to accelerate that through the right mixture of repowers and new school buses.”
Menyhart noted that repowering has larger societal and equity benefits as well, since it avoids polluting conventional buses ending up in less-developed countries where children are often exposed disproportionately to pollution with fewer regulations. And repowers can help lower-income districts in the U.S. afford healthier, cleaner electrification.
“The reality is a lot of those vehicles end up getting sold at the end of their life in the U.S. to other parts of the world and become some of the worst polluters,” Menyhart said. “As an industry, we need to develop more sustainable ways to drive electrification at scale and address secondary use while deploying new assets.”