What’s Big, Yellow, and Silent?

Last week, SACE attended the  Southeast Florida Clean Cities Coalition‘s annual Florida Electric School Bus Workshop. It was a chance to learn more about electric school bus technology, funding opportunities, and best practices in infrastructure.

According to Michelle McCucheon-Schour of the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, who participated in the conference, there over 400,000 buses deployed by school districts across the US, but only 55 of them are electric! Currently, there are just four electric school buses available for purchase:  TransTech SSTe’s Type A bus, Starcraft eQuest XL’s Type C bus, eLion’s Type C bus, and Blue Bird’s Type D bus that will be deployed in summer of 2018. All of these will achieve up to 100 miles of range.

Thomas Built/Daimler and Navistar/IC Bus are also developing electric school buses that will be in production in 2019.  These electric versions are just as safe as their diesel counterparts having been built and tested by the same standards as any other buses transporting America’s children.  Yet, unlike diesel buses, they do not come with dirty emissions that negatively impact children’s health. Plus, just like other forms of electric transportation, they’re quiet (on the outside at least). Below is a chart comparing the different models available:

School buses are ideal candidates for electrification for several reasons. First, most bus routes run under 100 miles per day and this typically includes a morning route and an afternoon route. With the significant amount of non-operating time, this means there is an opportunity to recharge the battery both during the day and overnight.  Electric buses also reduce the operating costs because of lower fuel costs and fewer maintenance issues. They also help school districts reduce their carbon footprint and, as noted above, reduce student and employee exposure to toxic diesel fumes.  However, at current prices, they are cost prohibitive, typically running three times the cost of a diesel bus.

One key topic at workshop presented by Jason Gaschel of Florida Power & Light (FPL) was the unique opportunity to help offset the higher initial cost of electric buses – the “Volkswagen Settlement.” In July 2016, Volkswagen (VW) agreed to a multiple-part settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency as a result of the installation of ‘defeat devices’ on their diesel engines in violation of the Clean Air Act. See more details here. One of the key programs of the settlement, the Environmental Mitigation Trust, provides funding to reduce the nitrogen oxide emissions (NOX) where VW diesels had previously operated. Eligible projects for the funding include replacements for older diesel engine buses. An example of how this might work is price sharing, where a district pays the traditional amount and then submits a proposal for the funds to cover the additional cost of the electric bus and the charging infrastructure.  This would result in a 40% annual cost savings to the district in reduced cost of fuel. It would also result in a reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 71%. How the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (the lead agency responsible for Florida’s VW Mitigation Plan) will prioritize the VW funding is yet to be decided (stay tuned and follow details here), but replacing Florida’s diesel school bus fleet with all-electric engines is one key option for the use of these funds.

Electric school buses on display at the Florida Electric School Bus Conferenc

Another topic of the workshop was bus charging. Unlike city buses, school buses would not require DC fast charging (also called Level 3) infrastructure.  This is mainly because of their usage pattern with a gap in the middle of the day and at night.  This is notable because it’s much more cost effective to install and maintain Level 2 charging infrastructure than Level 3, DC charging infrastructure. The speaker panel on Utility Partnerships also emphasized the importance of consulting with the utility prior to installing equipment as they can be an important resource to optimize charging station placement and energy pricing strategies.

Another topic featured at the event was a pilot project of the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources in collaboration with the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation. As a part of the project, three separate school districts each deployed a Type C eLion bus and reported on their experiences. The project demonstrated that:

  • The bus driver (how s/he drives) is the biggest factor in range, even more so than cold weather.
  • Engaging all stakeholders including administrative, finance, transportation departments, mechanics and parents are key to a successful program.
  • Identifying eager bus drivers is also critical as there is a learning curve associated with the driving.
  • Create an operations and charging plan first before deploying electric buses.
  • Consult with the utility provider early in the process to identify site locations for electric vehicle charging equipment.

In all, there is a very strong case for the electrification of school buses. With zero emissions, they are healthier for students and cleaner for the environment.  They also have great performance, lower operating costs, and predictable fuel costs. In the future, the batteries may help balance the energy grid and act as portable storage.  With lower battery cost, and available options to offset their initial higher cost, they are a viable option to school districts right now.

 

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