Besides expanding our vocabulary, the current electrification mania is made even more attractive by a $5 billion carrot being used to tempt school districts to help the Biden administration achieve its clean air goals.
Which brings us to energy management companies that advise school districts on the care and feeding of electric school bus (ESB) batteries and to develop charging solutions to manage the energy they produce.
Currently, the U.S. not only trails its foreign counterparts in overall electric vehicle (EV) production and fleet conversion but also in thermal events. But, while EV fires are considered rarities to this point, they do occur and will increase exponentially in incidents as EVs increase in number.
To date, however, and to the credit of everyone from school bus OEMs and their technological advancements to energy management companies that advise school districts, there has not been a single documented lithium-ion battery thermal event reported involving a battery-electric school bus, whether on the road, parked or charging, since they were introduced. Meanwhile there have been high-profile EV transit bus fires.
The student transportation industry experts that were willing to go on record for this article said that with the standards they maintain, that’s no mistake.
“AMPLY addresses safety with the highest degree of regard and this includes the potential fires that may originate from hardware or system failures,” said Simon Lonsdale, the company’s head of sales and strategy. “The layers that make up our approach include meeting or exceeding installation codes for fire safety, working with equipment that are UL or equivalently listed, and active monitoring of operational faults and metrics. From the installation and equipment selection we benefit from a minimum level of industry-established best practices aimed at mitigating safety and fire hazards. Through active monitoring of the charging equipment our platform detects operating anomalies and sends alerts to our network operators and customers for further investigation.”
Britton Smith, senior vice president for electrification and chief strategy officer for Blue Bird, said the OEM’s battery-electric school buses are designed with multiple fail-safes to prevent thermal events.
“Blue Bird electric buses are designed to prevent safety issues from developing in the first place,” Smith said, pointing out that Blue Bird’s active cooling system prevents batteries from overheating, and a secondary safety system is in place which automatically shuts off the battery before issues can develop.
“We also use the same material to mount and encase the high voltage batteries that is used to construct the fuel tank barriers on buses that have internal combustion engines,” Smith said. “This adds yet another layer of safety around the batteries.”
Smith noted that the batteries themselves are manufactured for safety. He said the two primary batteries used in EVs are nickel manganese cobalt battery, preferred by Blue Bird, and the lithium iron phosphate battery, or LFP.
Both are known for their durability and thermal stability.
Putting the Cart Before the Horse?
Some observers are evoking a low-tech metaphor to express concern that in their haste to implement a high-tech solution to environmental issues, school districts may be overlooking a major step in the process.
And the feds may be contributing to that procedural oversight by dangling carrots worth billions of dollars in grant money under the noses of school districts and contractors that purchase EV school buses to incentivize them to help the Biden administration achieve its goal of reducing the impact of fossil fuels on the environment.
And even though additional grants are available to set up critical infrastructure to support the EV school bus movement, observers say the rate OEMs are marketing EV school buses and school districts are ordering them is outpacing the planning, purchasing and installation of charging stations.
“Infrastructure is obviously something very important for school bus fleets but has been viewed as an afterthought during the school bus procurement process,” commented Justyne Lobello, spokesperson for Nuvve, a global energy infrastructure management company headquartered in San Diego. “There is such a push for getting electric school buses right now, with all the grants and other sources of funding being put into electrifying fleets, infrastructure was notably something not considered at the beginning of a BESB journey three or four years ago. A district would receive their new electric bus and be met with a surprise, the unaccounted-for cost for charging infrastructure they never anticipated.”
Lobello said that not only must school districts decide the number and locations of EV battery chargers, but they must also consider the capabilities of the chargers, choosing either a slower AC charger that takes a little longer but is easier on the battery or the faster DC charger, which powers up the battery quicker but is a bit more stressful on the battery’s cells.
Lobello said AC charging could become less desirable as school bus technology improves and battery capacities increase. Essentially, AC chargers may not be high-powered enough to charge buses in time to satisfy route needs, she added, for example, if they only have two to three hours between routes to charge.
“That’s why Nuvve encourages schools to electrify their fleets with DC fast chargers (DCFCs) from the start,” Lobello explained. “It is cost-effective to implement AC charging in a school bus fleet, but long-term AC may not suit the needs of the bus routes. Districts [that] evaluate and plan for long-term implementation of DCFCs will have the flexibility to charge buses faster and meet the charging needs of the increasing size of bus battery capacities.”
Lobello said from Nuvve’s standpoint, there’s also the piece of utility onboarding that many school districts don’t consider when jumping into electric school buses. “Districts are constantly told in presentations ‘be sure to contact your utility,’ when considering adding electric to their fleet. It’s not that simple” she explained. “Utilities are all different – by state, by region, and by their very nature. You need expert assistance to establish those connections – that’s where a company like Nuvve has an advantage, as we are working directly with utilities to establish an interconnection that goes far beyond simply plugging in your bus.”
According to the website, yourmechanic.com, the friendliest states for EV ownership per capita are Oklahoma, California, Washington, South Dakota and Colorado. The most hospitable infrastructure-wise is California with 4,978 charging units. But by sheer numbers the ratio of public chargers to EVs is one station for every 7,942 residents. In Vermont, the ratio for its 165 charging stations is one for every 3,780 residents.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law makes available $5 billion to build out the infrastructure and “Americanize” the supply chain by spurring domestic manufacturing plants for EVs, batteries and charging stations. California is likely to maintain its top spot in EV infrastructure because of the California Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Project (CALeVIP), which provides monetary incentives for the purchase and installation of publicly accessible charging stations.
As to whether EV school bus orders are outpacing the ability to support them, Lobello hinted that preparation and partner support are key elements. “There is going to be demand for buses and therefore demand for chargers,” Lobello said. “Nuvve has helped address demand for availability by maintaining the right amount of inventory for charging stations, and other materials that we know a customer may need down the line. Our typical lead time on charging stations is less than three weeks. Additionally, we vet and select certain installation partners whom we know will get the job done right and help the customer understand the process.”
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The question that remains, however, is will infrastructure be in place to welcome the EV school buses when they arrive.
Lobello noted that providing infrastructure requires various stakeholders from the utility company, the city, installers, and materials for the project. “This is a new terrain for school bus operators [who may] underestimate the length of time it will require any or all stakeholders to get their project moving forward,” Lobello remarked. “There is a tendency for people to order their bus and wait several months before deciding on infrastructure and charging. Transportation and fleet operators are most concerned about being able to get started in the morning, and drive – this means infrastructure should be considered at or close to the time of bus purchase.”
Amply’s Lonsdale offered a spark of hope by adding that BESB acquisitions are not necessarily outpacing the charging infrastructure, since school districts are not bound by the same infrastructure challenges as EVs that power up at public charging stations. He warned against developing a false sense of security, however.
“Due to supply chain and production delays, there is sometimes a considerable gap between when a purchase order is placed and when the electric vehicles are actually delivered,” Lonsdale explained. “However, it is important for schools to take the time prior to taking delivery of their vehicles to put their charging and infrastructure plans in place to ensure they don’t end up with stranded assets.”