HomeSpecial ReportsTransportation Directors Weigh Pros and Cons of Alt-Fuel, Electric School Buses

Transportation Directors Weigh Pros and Cons of Alt-Fuel, Electric School Buses

In a time when an unprecedented amount of funding is available for electric school buses, school transportation leaders opt to test out the new technology. But some leaders are happy with the fuel they currently use.

For instance, Neal Abramson, director of transportation at Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District in Southern California, said he wants to stick with compressed natural gas and isn’t interested in switching to propane or electric at this time, despite interest in CNG waning nationwide. Most of Abramson’s fleet of 25 buses run on CNG, except for three that are gasoline-powered.

He said the drawback of his district switching to propane would be there are no publicly accessible fueling stations in his area, and his district doesn’t have enough space for its own propane infrastructure. He said with CNG, the district obtains it from the city and the gasoline buses can be filled up virtually everywhere. He added that Santa Monica-Malibu was one of the first districts to purchase natural gas buses over 20 years ago, before grant money was readily available.

Abramson added that he might be interested in the capabilities of electric, but he wants to wait until the range improves. The district runs routes into the mountains of Santa Monica and Malibu. He noted that if the roadway is closed, for instance, due to a downed powerline, the district must go miles out of its way to get around it.

However, one challenge with his current vehicles that he experienced during the pandemic was the district went through a lot of batteries, since the buses were sitting for so long and no one was starting the vehicles periodically. Another complication, he shared, was that CNG buses sitting for too long lost fuel. Even though the buses passed all inspections and safety checks, and no leaks were detected, Abramson still noticed the decrease.

“You let a bus sit for two or three months and don’t touch it, it will lose natural gas,” Abramson explained. “It will seep out very slowly over time, and remember those systems are under high pressure.”

He added that every single one of his buses lost fuel at the beginning of the shutdown in March 2020, as no one came back to work for over two months. “Then I started checking the buses, and looking at the fuel going, wait a minute, this was full two months ago, and it was like half gone.”

Like a fully inflated balloon, he explained, over time the air leaks out. Similarly, tires can go flat after sitting for too long.

Meanwhile, nearby Downey Unified School District currently has 23 CNG school buses and is expecting the districts’ first two electric buses this year from a California Energy Commission grant. Transportation Supervisor Jose Cruz explained that eventually another five electric buses will also replace five diesel buses that need to be retired. He added that electric vehicles will be the go-to purchase from now on.

Infrastructure is also included in the purchase of the electric buses. He added that he is working with his electric utility to access the district’s needs at this time.

Cruz noted that one challenge he has been facing with CNG buses that he hopes electric vehicles will fix is a reduction in maintenance. He pointed out that CNG buses come equipped with a lot more parts and fuel sensors than electric vehicles. Plus, with the ongoing supply shortage, Downey USD isn’t receiving the needed parts as quickly.

“So that’s one thing that we are hopefully going to fix with going electric, as there are not as many parts,” he said.

Other Districts Turn Toward Electric Technology

Bethlehem Central School District in New York announced last month that its application for the New York Truck Voucher Incentive Program (NYTVIP) was approved. This provides the district up to $1 million in state-allocated funds to help with the purchase of five electric school buses.

A recent press release issued by the district states that it is the first district-operated school bus fleet in New York state to be award the NYTVIP funding to help advance its clean energy goals. Bethlehem received voter approval in May to begin the transition toward zero-emission, on the condition it could secure the NYTIVP funds.

Bethlehem’s goal is to convert at least 50 percent of its school buses from diesel to electric in the next 10 years.

“We are thrilled to be able to share this news and, more importantly, introduce electric buses to our fleet,” stated Superintendent Jody Monroe via a press release. “The district’s mission is rooted in four core values: academics, character, community and wellness. Despite the challenges of the pandemic, we saw an opportunity to invest in the long-term wellness of not only students but the entire community with a transition to electric.

“We knew, however, that we couldn’t do it alone,” Monroe continued. “This commitment of financial support from New York State is a pivotal moment for the Bethlehem community. It paves the way for safer, cleaner and quieter rides for children – one that comes with a much smaller carbon footprint and the opportunity to be at the forefront of the move to alternative energies.”

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The Champlain Valley School District in Vermont is also receiving its first two electric school buses via the Agency of Natural Resources Electric School and the Transit Bus Pilot Program. The delivery of the two electric buses was delayed several times after it was approved by voters in March 2020. However, as of Aug. 27, the buses had finally arrived at the district.

The district will pay a share of the cost of the two electric buses, the equivalent of two diesel buses, and the grant will cover the difference.

“The Champlain Valley School District prides itself on being a leader in sustainable practices,” a press release stated. “This opportunity allows us to not only transport students more safely and efficiently, but to make a concrete example of living up to our values. We are excited to take such an important role in helping Vermont reduce carbon emissions and improve energy efficiency. Our whole community is thrilled to see the electric buses rolling through CVSD.”

Despite the growing number of school districts piloting electric vehicles, a recent School Transportation News survey found that only 6 percent of readers have electric vehicles in their fleet, and only 20 percent are interested in purchasing them at this time.

The main concerns cited are the upfront vehicle cost, infrastructure cost, geography and climate, range, and limited data available.

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